TORONTO—It happens every week in major league clubhouses. The game ends and a player is summoned into the manager’s office, where another coach or sometimes a front-office guy await. This is a tough conversation to have, they say. We’re sending you down. Sorry.
Of course, usually the player in question is not one of the leading contenders for his league’s Cy Young Award.
Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin laughs now, remembering it. “The guy was an All-Star!” he says.
Of course, 24-year-old righthander Aaron Sanchez, who returned from his 10-day August trip to Class A Dunedin to finish a season in which he led the American League in ERA (3.00) and home run rate (only one for every nearly 13 innings pitched), was not demoted for performance reasons. He had never thrown more than the 109 2/3 frames he strung together between Class A and the Arizona Fall League in 2013 and Toronto was terrified of letting him overextend himself this season. So after Sanchez, aware of his climbing pitch count, suggested the move, the Jays shut him down for 10 days, optioning him to the minors so they could bring up reliever Aaron Loup rather than playing a man short.
And good thing they did. On Tuesday, Sanchez extended Toronto’s season at least one more day, delivering six innings of two-hit ball as the Jays won 5–1 to clip the wings of the ascendant Indians and bring the series score to 3–1.
Sanchez knew exactly what he was doing when he offered to take a $27,400 pay cut and spend nine games in a minor league uniform, sitting on a minor league bench. (He didn’t eat minor league food, though. “I made sure things were taken care of,” he says. “Chick-fil-A, whatever they wanted. Those guys were tired of PB&Js.”)
The Blue Jays’ first plan was to preserve him by sending him to the bullpen, as they had when he broke into the majors in 2014 and again the next year after he made 11 starts and then strained his right lat muscle. He was a weapon there, striking out nearly three times as many men as he walked and allowing opposing hitters a .412 OPS. But he found his success problematic.
“There was so much, ‘Oh, he’s so good here,’” says Sanchez. “I’m like, f--- the ’pen. I want the opportunity to start ... I felt like I haven’t failed as a starter, so why aren’t I getting the opportunity to do what I want to do?”
So he spent the off-season training to be in the rotation. He and fellow righty Marcus Stroman followed what they called the “9 every 5,” or nine innings every five days, workout plan, and the lanky kid who looked a sneeze away from snapping in half added 25 pounds to his 6'4", 195-pound frame. He told GM Ross Atkins and manager John Gibbons of his hope in spring training this year, and the team decided to give Sanchez a shot. And then, at his urging again, it decided to rest him rather than send him back to relief. The decisions paid off.
Nine days after he admitted he let his emotions get away from him, overpitching and allowing six runs in 5 2/3 in Game 3 of the ALDS, Sanchez was electric on Tuesday. His fastball sat at 95 mph and he got five swings and misses on his big, looping curveball. “It’s tough to hit even if you know it’s coming,” Martin says of that pitch.
The Blue Jays had no such issues. They collectively hit .177 and scored three runs in the first three games of the series, but went into Tuesday planning to be aggressive. Third baseman Josh Donaldson, who had told his teammates beforehand that he “was coming to play today,” got things started with a solo home run in the third off Cleveland ace Corey Kluber, starting on short rest for the first time in his career. It was Toronto’s first lead of the series, and it would hold. Kluber walked two to open the fourth inning, and leftfielder Ezequiel Carrera—who also tripled for the second straight night—brought one home with a single. The Indians drew within one a frame later and threatened to do more damage, but Donaldson lunged to his left to snag a Carlos Santana groundball that seemed destined for leftfield to end the inning and preserve the lead.
Second baseman Ryan Goins opened the seventh inning with a single and rightfielder Jose Bautista reached on an error. With nobody out and the heart of the order coming up, Cleveland manager Terry Francona chose to intentionally walk Donaldson and face first baseman—and 2016 major league leader in bases-loaded RBI—Edwin Encarnacion.
“I went through every scenario in my head,” Francona said after the game. “Rather than play the infield in without a force out with Donaldson, I decided with the force out at the plate and pitch to Encarnacion…It didn’t work.”
Encarnacion drilled a groundball into rightfield, scoring two, and let out a yell as he charged to second base. “I love to hit with the bases loaded,” he said afterward, grinning broadly.
By the time centerfielder Kevin Pillar brought Carrera home on a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning, the game felt well in hand. The combination of Brett Cecil, Jason Grilli and Roberto Osuna produced three perfect innings in relief of Sanchez; it’s been nearly three weeks since they allowed a run.
“Our bullpen doesn’t get as much love as some bullpens,” Martin says, carefully avoiding mentioning the Indians’ creatively deployed relievers by name, “but they get the job done.”
The Jays have stayed their execution, but the stress has taken a toll. Donaldson admitted he barely slept on Monday night, and the road to come is not much easier. Only 12 teams in history have won seven-game series they began down 3–1, and two of the three contests remaining will be held in Cleveland. Sanchez is unlikely to start again, and Kluber is lined up to pitch a possible Game 7 on short rest. The Indians have held the Toronto offense in check with a steady diet of outside pitches, and for the most part that strategy continues to work.
But for a few hours on Tuesday, the Blue Jays could relax. The clubhouse was jovial after the game—Pillar reminded everyone, press included, to wear lucky shirts on Wednesday, and DH Michael Saunders instructed his teammates to don the same uniform shirts and pants as on Tuesday—and a night after several players declined to speak to journalists before leaving, they lingered and chatted. After a game won by their maturing ace and their reawakened bats, they could feel themselves getting their mojo back. Bautista considered the immediate future, a game 20 hours away against a 24-year-old lefty, Ryan Merritt, who has made one career major league start.
“Not having seen him could go either way,” Bautista admitted, then smiled. “But with our lineup, I’m pretty sure he’s gonna be shaking in his boots more than we are, so I like where we’re at.”