TORONTO - There’s always been an “it” factor with Aaron Sanchez that goes beyond what he’s produced on the mound.
Whether it comes from the fact he was the pitching prospect the Blue Jays kept from their famous “Lansing Three” - which also included Noah Syndergaard, and, somewhat hilariously, Justin Nicolino - the “Sanchize” nickname, or the exaggerated movement on his pitches, the belief in his talent has always persisted regardless of his results.
At times that’s felt stubborn and foolhardy, a failure to adjust expectations in the face of hard evidence. On Sunday, Sanchez both justified that belief and demonstrated its perils with 5.2 innings of four-run ball in a 10-9 Blue Jays loss, striking out 10 against 0 walks.
It didn’t take too long for Sanchez to make it clear he was operating at a different level against the Rays - striking out the first six batters he faced. That was a Blue Jays record for consecutive K’s to start a game, and when the third inning was done, he was perfect with seven strikeouts and two groundouts on his ledger.
“If you establish the strike zone early, you get early contact and you get outs early,” he said after the contest. “My main focus was just to attack and it just so happened I punched out the first six.”
Sanchez was unable to sustain his perfection, or anything close to it, despite flashing the peak of his abilities.
His trademark curveball often looked devastating, eliciting five swinging strikes and accounting for five strikeouts. It was clear the hammer was present and accounted for from the very first hitter, as Sanchez used it to put away Ji-Man Choi.
Sanchez was also able to freeze hitters with the pitch, getting four called strikes and making a fool of Guillermo Heredia to end the fifth.
“When I’m able to get that pitch over for a strike, obviously the games seem to be a lot better,” he said. “You don’t get to eliminate pitches when I throw that for a strike.”
While his curveball was his most dynamic strikeout pitch, perhaps more impressive was his changeup. Sanchez went to the offering 27 times, more than he used any individual pitch on a balanced day for his pitch mix. His 28.4 percent changeup rate was the highest of his season.
Rookie catcher Reese McGuire boldly signalled for the righty-on-righty changeup a number of times, catching the Rays off-guard. Coming into Sunday, Sanchez had thrown his change to right-handers just 11.5 percent of the time - against Tampa that number was almost twice as much at 20 percent.
Sanchez bamboozled slugger Tommy Pham with that plan of attack in the very first inning:
Both his two and four-seam fastballs were also plenty effective. Of the 42 heaters that he threw, 28 were either swinging strikes, called strikes or fouls. While his velocity sat just under 93 mph on average — which is normal for him — he seemed to have a little more arm-side run, allowing him to confuse Rays batters.
Former Blue Jays prospect Travis D’Arnaud, for instance, could do nothing as one of Sanchez’s heaters started outside and locked him up on the corner.
Yet, for all his brilliance, and he looked truly brilliant out of the gate, he ended up letting the sixth inning spiral and posting a 6.35 ERA on the day. He came completely undone and didn’t even have bad luck to blame as the Rays figured out his curveball and smacked it all over the park.
“He hung that breaking ball at the end to their good hitters and the guys hit some line drives,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Other than that he was pretty good.”
Whether you attribute that to the third-time-through-the-order penalty or McGuire leaning on the hook a little too much in the inning (Sanchez threw it on 12 of his 27 pitches in the frame), it turned the outing from an encouraging revelation to one that focussed on his fatal flaw - a place Sanchez has been far too many times of late.
Two starts ago, the right-hander managed to rein in his control on the way to his first single-walk outing of the season. Last time out, he managed his first zero-walk outing in over three years. On Sunday, he posted double-digit strikeouts without a walk for the first time in his career. Now, in his last three outings he’s got a K/BB ratio of 20/1, a number which would have been unthinkable a couple of weeks ago.
“My last few starts I’ve been able to get ahead and stay ahead,” he said. “And the results are a lot different when that occurs. I’ve got to keep building off what I’ve been doing and just ride this out.”
It’s hard to argue with that progress, even if the results haven’t always followed.
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