How the three days that kept Aaron Sanchez in the rotation shook down

Shi Davidi, Ben Nicholson-Smith, and Arden Zwelling discuss the dramatic Blue Jays win from Saturday night and their final game of the season, where they’ll attempt to avoid a tie-breaking game for the wild card.

BOSTON – The Toronto Blue Jays monitored Aaron Sanchez’s innings, skipped starts, moved to a six-man rotation, demoted him to single-A Dunedin for a rest, and carefully planned their final five weeks with exactly this scenario in mind: Game 162, the ball in his hands, a post-season berth a win away.

Their preference, of course, would have been for Sunday’s pivotal outing against David Price and the Boston Red Sox to not have been necessary, because a wild card, at least, if not the American League East title was already sewn up. They could then push Sanchez back to the first game of the playoffs.

Regardless, the many machinations involved in having the 24-year-old on-call for the assignment demonstrates the level of trust he’s earned through a dominant, monster 14-2 season.

Still, if not for three days of meetings and manoeuvering at the beginning of August, Sanchez would not have been in this spot, gearing up for the season’s most important game.

When the acquisition of Francisco Liriano was completed mere moments before the non-waiver trade deadline Aug. 1, Sanchez was told he’d finish the season as a reliever. The Blue Jays front office had concluded that, “the best odds of Aaron Sanchez being a part of the team was at some point some transition to the bullpen,” general manager Ross Atkins said.

Three days later, the Blue Jays reversed course after coming to an “understanding that’s what had to happen for us to do the things we wanted to do as a team,” says Sanchez.

This is how the right-hander recalls the chain of events that led to the reversal of a plan in place from the spring to transition him to the bullpen to ease workload concerns.

As the non-waiver deadline loomed, Atkins and the Blue Jays zeroed in on acquiring a starting pitcher. Toward the end of the day Liriano emerged as an option, leading to a deal that snuck in under the line. Meanwhile, manager John Gibbons met with Sanchez in his office at Minute Maid Park for a chat.

“We got down to Houston and Gibby called me in and informed me that’s what’s going to happen,” says Sanchez. “It was tough, only because I thought from the time we left spring training that if it did come down to the point where I did have to go to the ‘pen, we talked about sitting down and talking about it. And then it blindsided me. So it was a little tough at the beginning, but like I’ve always said, I have to appreciate them sitting down and actually having this conversation because that does show their feelings and I understand that.”

While the clubhouse was happy about Liriano’s acquisition, that wasn’t the case with moving Sanchez to the bullpen. Catcher Russell Martin said in an interview that, “I just feel like he’s been an ace this year, he’s pitched in every start and he hasn’t had that many stressful innings. I would be the kind of guy like, hey, if he feels good, I’d ride the wave, ride that horse. I don’t know what our great minds are thinking, so we’ll see.”

Sanchez’s status had already long been a talking point among players, coaches and the front office, with ideas on how to keep him starting coming from all corners. But with the move to the bullpen now imminent, it really crystalized the need for an alternative solution.

Despite Atkins’ announcement, it wasn’t a done deal.

The Blue Jays’ approach with Sanchez became a focal point in the baseball world, evoking the Washington Nationals’ decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012 before the team reached the post-season, and the drama that surrounded Matt Harvey and the New York Mets last fall.

Debate raged over whether a move to the bullpen would actually reduce the strain on Sanchez, whether this was the right decision for him, the team. President and CEO Mark Shapiro, speaking with Bob McCown on Sportsnet 590 the FAN, was unequivocal.

“At some point he’s not going to start anymore this year,” said Shapiro. “He will not run 230 innings and pitch through October. That’s not going to happen. That can’t happen. No one in their right mind, including him, would suggest that can happen.”

But all along that was Sanchez’s plan. As far back as the previous January, he’d stressed to them that he wanted to start all the way through.

“They always knew what I wanted to do but at the same time we did sit down during spring training and talk about scenarios that were going to come up,” he says. “I did everything in my power to keep my body in shape, to keep my body healthy, to keep my body in tip-top shape so when the time did come up, that I could go to them with what I felt, and they would have an understanding of the player’s input. Because at the end of the day, nobody knows me better than me. I told these guys I’d be 100 per cent honest with them in any decision that was going to happen.”

In the meantime, Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker spoke with various players, including the other five starters, about some of the possibilities at play, trying to determine which course of action might play out.

During his Aug. 3 session with the media, Gibbons said: “Truthfully, we’re still debating what’s going to happen. The total plan. Nothing is locked in stone yet.”

So he’s not definitely going to the bullpen?

“I have no info for you right at this moment.”

When a writer joked about being confused, Gibbons quipped, “Well you should. I am, too.”

As the backroom work played out, Atkins flew into Houston for some face-to-face discussions with everyone involved. First meeting: Sanchez.

“They were very approachable with the situation because we had talked about it before, it was something we both knew was going to come up,” says Sanchez. “We both went in with him hearing me out, me hearing him out and coming down to what is going to benefit not only me, not only my team, not only the organization but everybody. That’s how we went about the decision making.”

First and foremost was the health angle, and, the question.

“What was really best for me?” recalls Sanchez. “And that’s what I emphasized when we sat down and talked. I understand there has to be a move that has to happen, whether I stay in the rotation or where I go to the bullpen, but I feel like I deserve the right to sit down and talk to you guys and understand and let’s figure out what really is right for me moving forward. It was just a lot of brainstorming after that.”

Atkins later met with Gibbons, and then Sanchez joined them both for another discussion. The idea of moving to a six-man staff was hatched. Sanchez wasn’t sure what the other starters were thinking and didn’t want to involve himself.

“It was a little tough for me because at the same time [the idea of a six-man rotation] was helping everybody on the staff, it was really based around me,” he says. “That was something that not necessarily I didn’t like, but you don’t want to feel selfish in any part of this, understanding what we’re trying to accomplish during the year, and it being a distraction.”

Everyone was on board, determined to do what was needed to keep Sanchez starting. In explaining the decision to media Aug. 4, Atkins said the Blue Jays altered course after, “input from more people, one of those people being Francisco Liriano, who was open to anything and everything, if it meant going to the ‘pen, if it meant a six-man rotation. That opened things up for us to think about things differently. Then talking to Aaron about it, and how strongly he felt about staying in the rotation. Fortunately we’re in a situation where we can continue to do it.”

The support of his rotation-mates buoyed Sanchez the rest of the way.

“When they did find out we were going [to a six-man] and I did get the feedback that I got, it gave me that much more fire knowing that, if this is because of you, let’s go. That was the mentality I had and it’s worked up to this point,” he says. “There was never any remorse or any bad [feelings] about it. Yeah, it might have been tough to adjust to, but as a professional athlete, you’ve got to be ready to go out there and do what you’ve got to do and anything that’s called for. That’s what it came down to.”

And now it’s down to 162, a win and the Blue Jays are in to the post-season for a second straight year.

“These guys here, giving me the opportunity to really tell them how I feel, and really being honest with them on a face-to-face, man-to-man basis, was probably the biggest part of this whole scenario,” Sanchez says of the Blue Jays front office. “I was happy I got to stay in the rotation and help contribute to this team in some pretty important games down the stretch.”

None more important than Sunday afternoon.

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