All-Star nod ‘means the world’ to Blue Jays’ Marco Estrada

Marco Estrada of the Toronto Blue Jays on being a part of the American League All-star team.

TORONTO – Marco Estrada isn’t sure if he’ll be able to pitch. Michael Saunders doesn’t know if he’s going to get there at all. Regardless, the two Toronto Blue Jays each took great meaning from their all-star news Tuesday, Estrada named to the Midsummer Classic for the first time while Saunders was put in the running for the American League squad through the fan’s final vote.

“This is a huge honour,” said Estrada, who had cortisone shots Monday to deal with his lower back troubles and is hopeful of not missing his next start. “I wanted to play baseball and have fun with it but you always want to be part of an all-star team. I just wasn’t sure if I’d ever get there. To finally get the opportunity to be an all-star, it means the world to me and my family.”

Saunders, vying for the last roster spot against Ian Kinsler, Evan Longoria, Dustin Pedroia and George Springer, got the news from manager John Gibbons and “we had a great talk, smiles on both our faces. I’m not in the all-star game right now but it’s still an honour to be part of that final five vote.”

“I know the Blue Jays will be behind me and I hope to get the support of the rest of Canada,” the Victoria, B.C., native added later. “This isn’t Toronto’s team, really, this is Canada’s baseball team.”

Voting ends Friday at 4 p.m. ET.

Estrada was named to the American League team through the players’ ballot, as were third baseman Josh Donaldson and first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, each an all-star for the third time.

Left on the outside looking in as the rosters were revealed were Aaron Sanchez (9-1, 2.94 ERA) and J.A. Happ (11-3, 3.54), plus closer Roberto Osuna (2-1, 16 saves, 2.39 ERA). They fell victim to the selection process’s numbers game that cuts out dozens of deserving players each season. Meanwhile, Jose Bautista, just out of his walking boot as he recovers from turf toe, had his run of six straight all-star selections end.

The three players bound for San Diego matched the Blue Jays’ total from the past two seasons and should Saunders win the fan vote, four would be their most since they had four representatives in 2013.

For Estrada, who turned 33 on Tuesday, the selection comes as he has not only repeated a breakout 2015 season, but actually made further gains, despite struggling with back issues over his past four starts. Heading into Tuesday’s action, his 2.93 earned-run average was tied for third among American League starters with Chris Sale and Cole Hamels, while his 0.99 WHIP was a hair behind’s Sale’s 0.98 for the league lead.

No one has a lower hits-per-nine rate than his 5.52 (Danny Salazar is a distant second at 6.27) or opponents average against than his .173 (well ahead of Salazar’s .195), a product a sharp curveball, an improving cutter, the ability to locate a very average fastball and the changeup that changed his career.

“I came into pro ball with basically just a curveball and a fastball and wasn’t really getting it done,” said Estrada. “So I talked to Clint Everts (a teammate at advanced-A Potomac in 2007) who had a really good changeup and asked him how he held the pitch, and it just seemed like I had a really good feel for it right away. It felt really comfortable in my hand. I don’t remember if I threw it in the bullpen or I just walked straight into it in a game, but I do remember getting swings and misses and going, ‘This could be it right here, this is what’s going to get me over this hump.’ Obviously it took some time to get used to it and even now I still struggle with it at times. I’m a lot more consistent with it that I used to be.”

Estrada’s next start for the Blue Jays is up in the air because of his back and the team is considering multiple scenarios, including skipping him entirely, pitching him on schedule Thursday or pushing him and everyone else back a day by sliding Drew Hutchison in for a start.

Depending on how all that plays out, he may need to decline pitching in the all-star game.

“It’s obviously something I don’t want to do, I want to be able to pitch,” said Estrada. “It’s my first time and it could be my only time. But also the team has to come first. And if I can’t pitch for the team right now I shouldn’t pitch anywhere else. We’re going to give it a few days. We haven’t put a stamp on anything. I have to make sure I do feel good for my next outing. … We do have to be smart about this. There’s a second half we still have to play and hopefully the season goes a little further than that. It might be wise to take a few days off, and if that means not pitching in the all-star game, I might have to do that. But right now we just don’t know.”

The Blue Jays didn’t know what would happen to Saunders this year after he missed virtually all off 2015 to a bone bruise in his left knee that resulted from a spring meniscus tear. A three-team deal that would have sent him to the Angels fell through early this spring and Saunders has since responded with a remarkable bounceback season.

Entering Tuesday’s play, he ranked third in OPS among American League outfielders at .910, posting a .290/.366/.544 slash line with 15 homers and 38 RBIs, at long last realizing the potential long seen in him.

“It’s been a long process, an up and down process, a very tough one,” said Saunders. “I always say you learn a lot more from failure than you do from success, and I think I had to go through those failures to get where I am today and I still feel I have more to bring to the table. I’m trying to get better every day, trying to learn every day but honestly what better place to learn than here with this lineup and some of the players of the calibre we have in the locker-room?

“We’re constantly talking about hitting and different approaches and I’ve learned a lot off these guys, not only mechanically but mentally in the approach and everything like that. I still strive to be better every day so I’m working hard to continue, but ultimately it’s about winning baseball games.”

Asked about the potential of giving up his all-star break, Saunders quipped that “I’ve had enough four days off in my career,” a reference to the frequent injuries that stalled his career with the Seattle Mariners, and his start with the Blue Jays. This kind of season has been a long time coming.

“I’ve told everyone in this room that I felt like it was kind of a redemption year for me,” said Saunders. “Not that it gave me that extra drive to work that much harder or anything like that, but playing for the Blue Jays was a dream of mine growing up, missing all of last year was really hard on me, more so mentally and emotionally than it was physically. I really wanted to prove to myself and prove to the organization and to the fanbase why they traded for me in the first place and I’ve worked obviously very hard in the off-season and continue to work hard during the year to be where I am right now.”

Where he hopes to be is in San Diego next week, where Donaldson, selected for a third straight year, and Encarnacion, previously chosen in 2013 and ’14, are headed.

Their all-star nods were essentially no-brainers as Encarnacion began play Tuesday with a big-league best 76 RBIs while Donaldson sat fourth in the American League with 58. Encarnacion has 22 homers and a .264/.356/.541 slash line to complement all those RBIs while Donaldson’s OPS of .992 was tied with Jose Altuve for third in the American League, percentage points behind Mike Trout’s .994 for second.

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