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Blue Jays’ Aaron Sanchez able to overcome early obstacles vs. Orioles

Sportsnet logo Sportsnet 2018-03-08 Arden Zwelling
sanchez_aaron: Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez faced multiple early obstacles Thursday in his third outing of the spring against the Baltimore Orioles. © Frank Gunn/CP Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Aaron Sanchez faced multiple early obstacles Thursday in his third outing of the spring against the Baltimore Orioles.

SARASOTA, Fla. — It’s always a tricky proposition when a starting pitcher is facing a division rival during spring training. You’re likely going to see them a bunch of times during the season, so you don’t want to give too much away. Some guys will mess with their sequencing. Others will hide certain pitches. 

It was certainly on Aaron Sanchez’s mind when he took the mound in Sarasota on Thursday, facing a very close facsimile of what the Baltimore Orioles batting order will look like come opening day.

"Yeah, that’s pretty much their lineup. It’s tough — you come into spring training, you don’t really want to pitch against in-division teams," Sanchez said, after working three innings in the Toronto Blue Jays’ 9-3 victory over the Orioles. "You try to give them a different look, because you want to give them your best when it matters.

"It’s just a personal preference. You build all off-season, and then it’s like showing your bag of tricks on the first day, you know? That was kind of how it felt."

It was just one of the hurdles Sanchez faced Thursday in his third outing of spring, as he allowed a run on four hits and a walk while striking out five over his three innings.

He was pitching on the road for the first time in eight months, which puts a starter out of their ideal rhythm. He was throwing to a new catcher, Max Pentecost, who had never handled him before and had a few hiccups with his signs in the early going. And the mound at Ed Smith Stadium was significantly more elevated than the one Sanchez warmed up on in the bullpen, which required some early adjustments for the 25-year-old to hone in on his location.

But it’s good that he faced these things now. Sanchez is going to face similar challenges come the regular season, and spring training is the time to figure out how to best manage them so that things go smoothly when the wins and losses count.

"There were some obstacles early on that I had to overcome," Sanchez said. "But with all those in play, overcoming that, and finishing strong, I’d say it’s a pretty good day."

Sanchez had a tougher time than he would have liked in a 23-pitch first inning, before working a quick 12-pitch second that ended with a double play started by Jonathan Davis, who made a spectacular diving grab in centre field before doubling a runner off at third.

But in his third inning, Sanchez was as dialled in as he’s been all spring. Working at a much quicker pace than he was earlier, Sanchez was all over Baltimore’s hitters, throwing 11 of his 14 pitches that inning for strikes, while striking out Colby Rasmus, Trey Mancini and Adam Jones.

"I think I finally just got settled in," Sanchez said. "The mound was super steep. I was trying to stay on the ball better. … Just slowing things down, making sure I stay back, making sure I get over the ball.

"And I followed with my off-speed. I think those are going to continue to be huge weapons for me this season if I can continue to harness those down."

Sanchez’s next outing will come Tuesday — back on the road in Lake Buena Vista — against the Atlanta Braves.

"He’ll come in and we’ll see what he can do," Gibbons said. "The bullpen’s one area we’re looking to address. No guarantees. If he pitches good, it just gives us more depth.

"He’s like anybody else; he’s competing for a spot. And we’ll try to take the best guys we can down there."

Clippard arrives at Blue Jays camp looking to continue working on a series of adjustments he made at the end of last season that he hopes can correct a recent rough patch. Clippard was extremely dependable from 2009 through 2016, pitching to a 2.77 ERA over 550 appearances. But he took a step backwards last season, struggling to a 4.77 ERA over 60.1 innings pitched.

If Clippard can get back on track and crack Toronto’s opening-day lineup, he’ll bring an element of experience to the Blue Jays bullpen that Gibbons says the team needs.

"He’s another veteran guy who’s been through it a lot," Gibbons said. "He’s always had one of the better changeups in the game. He’s been around. He’s been on winning teams. He’s been under the gun.

"I think it’s so important on a team that’s supposed to do something that you have some good veterans down there that have been through it. That’s huge. And we have that. How it all shapes up, I couldn’t tell you right now. But we’re starting to like the way it looks"

Clippard’s changeup, plus a forkball-splitter he also throws down in the zone, is the primary reason why he’s put up reverse splits over his career, holding left-handed hitters to a .190/.271/.325 line while right-handers have hit .202/.292/.368. If he does make the Blue Jays for opening day, he could face plenty of southpaws as the Blue Jays bullpen currently features only one left-hander in Aaron Loup.

"I think it’s about not being afraid to pitch in to those guys," Clippard said. "If you show them that you can throw hard in and have an effective weapon away, it makes it difficult for left-handed hitters."

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