Just when it seemed as though the Toronto Blue Jays were about to squander another stellar outing from Aaron Sanchez, his catcher provided a badly-needed breakthrough hit.
As soon as the ball left Russell Martin‘s bat, he knew it had a chance to leave the park for a three-run homer. Once it landed beyond the centre field wall, the Blue Jays had generated enough offence to support Sanchez’s effort and — for the moment, at least — tie the Baltimore Orioles atop the AL East standings.
“It felt good,” Martin said. “When it went over the fence it was even better.”
Sanchez allowed just two runs in seven innings, striking out six on a day he lowered his ERA to 2.84. Three strikeouts and many more fist-pumps later Jason Grilli handed the game to Roberto Osuna, who closed out Toronto’s 4-2 win over the visiting Houston Astros.
Performances like this place Sanchez firmly in the American League Cy Young conversation, but far more importantly for the Blue Jays, he rebounded from a so-so start against the Kansas City Royals with a stronger outing. While the question of how best to manage the 24-year-old’s workload won’t disappear any time soon, it’s a good problem to have as long as he pitches this well.
The Astros scored twice against Sanchez in the first inning, attacking his fastball aggressively. That prompted Martin to change course, calling more often for a curveball manager John Gibbons described as the best he’s seen from Sanchez and a particularly effective change-up.
“It’s a great pitch for him,” Martin said. “The more he uses it, the better it’s going to be. Especially when guys have shown they’re going to cheat on the fastball a little, it allows you to get some weak contact.”
Osuna’s save was the 46th of his career, which ties him with Terry Forster for the most ever before the age of 22.
“To close games on a good ballclub at that age is unheard of,” Gibbons said. “I can’t say it came out of nowhere, but we didn’t anticipate this when he made the team last year.”
After Josh Donaldson halved Houston’s lead with a solo home run the Blue Jays had trouble generating offence against Collin McHugh. It wasn’t until the sixth inning that the Blue Jays rallied with singles from Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Saunders that set up Martin’s home run.
It was Martin’s ninth home run of the year, so he’s not close to the pace he set last year when he homered 23 times, but he has quietly hit well in recent months, raising his season on-base percentage to .332, well above the MLB average of .321. That’s some respectable production from a position that’s a complete zero offensively on many teams, especially considering how badly he struggled early in the season.
There are signs that Martin’s throwing may be improving, too. He threw out the otherwise unstoppable Jose Altuve for the second consecutive day, nabbing the MVP candidate with a strong, accurate throw. Though he’s historically been an exceptional thrower, Martin entered play Saturday having prevented just eight of 52 stolen base attempts.
Catchers often start to fade this time of year, but if anything Martin appears to be getting stronger, with no visible traces of the neck soreness that lingered early in the season or the knee injury sustained after a sauna session in July.
“Every game’s different,” Martin said. “It’s a long, gruelling season. Some days you feel great and you don’t do so well. Some days you don’t feel good and you do pretty well.”
When he awoke Saturday, Martin wasn’t even feeling his best. Day games after night games are notoriously taxing for catchers, whose knees have barely any recovery time between contests.
“I didn’t feel good waking up this morning,” Martin said. “But I feel much better now.”
Saturday’s performance suggests he’s peaking at the right time both on defence and at the plate.
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