TORONTO – The New York Yankees run out the kind of lineup that would have given Aaron Sanchez fits last season. With four left-handed batters and three switch-hitters, there would have been little room to breathe for a pitcher who held righties to a tiny .435 OPS while lefties clubbed him at an .878 clip. That kids, is a significant split, one the young Toronto Blue Jays right-hander struggled to deal with.
Things are different now, however, as Sanchez demonstrated with six dominant innings of two-run ball Tuesday night against the Yankees, when lefties went just 3-for-16 with three walks against him. That bodes well for the Blue Jays, even if he was angry at himself afterwards. “I had some success but it’s tough, you can’t go out there expecting to do great, when it’s ball, ball, ball, strike, strike, ball, strike,” said Sanchez. “You can’t expect to get calls either.”
What doesn’t bode well is another tough outing for Brett Cecil, who surrendered a single, a walk and a go-ahead flare single over a drawn-in infield to Jacoby Ellsbury in the seventh inning of a 3-2 loss. Four of the Blue Jays’ five losses this season belong to the bullpen, two of them to Cecil.
Unless manager John Gibbons can quickly generate four or five Roberto Osuna clones, there is no immediate answer other than riding out a rut in perhaps the worst place to have one.
“Let’s face it, if he’s not good this year that’s a big hole,” Gibbons said of Cecil. “I’ve seen him start slow, the last pitch he threw to (Brett) Gardner was a typical curveball, maybe that gets him going. The go-ahead hit was that bleeder, then he punched out Gardner, so he’s going to be fine. I thought he looked pretty good in spring training, to be honest with you, but he’s off right now, there’s no secret about that.”
Masking Cecil’s struggles is especially difficult when runs continue to be so scarce for baseball’s most productive offence in 2015. Masahiro Tanaka slopped his way through five innings of two-run ball, the damage coming on a Jose Bautista two-run double in the third that gave the Blue Jays a 2-1 lead.
The Japanese right-hander needed 92 pitches to get through those five frames, a sign of the quality at-bats he faced.
But after Brian McCann’s two-out solo shot on a full-count heater tied things up in the sixth, Johnny Barbato, Chasen Shreve, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller locked things down before a crowd of 28,819.
That’s how bull-penning is done.
“We’re not too far off,” catcher Russell Martin said of the offence. “We believe we have a great team offensively, overall we have a great team, the hits are going to come, we’ll start loosening up a little bit, and we’ll start playing like we know how we can play.”
Sanchez, at least, showed how starting gets done, using mainly his changeup with his inconsistent curveball to go with the heater in handling a lefty-laden lineup. He gifted them a run in the second with an errant pickoff throw to second that advanced a pair of walks and led to the game’s first run on Starlin Castro’s groundout.
The way he reacted to the error and the walks left him most frustrated.
“(McCann) was dead in the water if I make a good throw (on the pickoff attempt). It’s unfortunate,” said Sanchez, adding later: “There were a couple of calls that didn’t go my way. Being in the big-leagues, that’s something that shouldn’t affect you, for me it did and it cost a run there in the second.”
But the Yankees managed just two more hits over the next four innings, including McCann’s no-doubter. “It was a good pitch, I’ve got to tip my cap there,” said Sanchez. And while he wasn’t thrilled with the end product, the Blue Jays will gladly take more like this from the 23-year-old, particularly the way he controlled left-handed hitters.
“The changeup keeps them off-balance so it’s disrupting the hitters’ timing, which is a priority,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “That’s what we’re spending a lot of time on early in the season, (Marcus) Stroman is using his changeup more, Sanchez is using his changeup more, Marco (Estrada), he’s unbelievable, so it’s a pitch that’s critical, especially against left-handed hitters. Even at 97, if you see three, four, five of them in an at-bat, you’re going to get the barrel to the ball. He’s going to increase his strikeouts because of it, he’s going to be a more effective pitcher.”
Sanchez struck out five Yankees, even though his curveball wasn’t as effective as it was in his first start against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“It’s a very effective pitch. He can bury it in the dirt, he’s getting better command where he can throw it for a strike,” said Walker. “Last year, it might have been an arm-side miss, and Russ didn’t have the confidence to call it. Russ has the confidence to call all those pitches right now, and that gives the pitcher even more confidence because all of a sudden he’s calling a 3-2 breaking ball, or he’s calling a 2-0 changeup. Sanchez feels the confidence because of that. That’s where a veteran catcher comes in handy, he takes the pressure off and the pitcher can just trust him.”
The lack of a consistent curveball is what’s hurting Cecil right now, and that’s an issue the Blue Jays must find ways to work through. The left-hander didn’t lock in last year until June, grinding through a slow April and a tough June around a decent May, so there’s a sense of déjà vu here.
“I think guys are understanding what he wants to do out there a little bit,” said Martin. “It’s up to myself and the pitching coach to talk to him and not be too predictable with it. I feel like the curveball is good, I think the curveball velocity is down just a tick so that can have a bit of an impact on whether guys are chasing pitches. It’s kind of the same scenario last year, when it was a bit of a slower start and it picked up as the season went along. I’m expecting the same thing this year.”
The old Cecil would be a fine complement for the new Sanchez.
Shi Davidi Sportsnet
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