Sanchez keeps Blue Jays starters scoreless

March 30th, 2019

TORONTO -- The first turn through the Blue Jays rotation is going off without a hitch, and Toronto has extended a franchise record because of it.

Aaron Sanchez did not allow a run and completed five innings, as the Blue Jays' starting staff increased its scoreless streak to 19 in a 3-0 victory over the Tigers on Saturday afternoon at Rogers Centre. Justin Smoak chipped in with a two-run homer, and Billy McKinney added an RBI single as the Blue Jays improved their early season record to 2-1.

Toronto's previous record of scoreless innings to start the year from the rotation was eight, which was set by Jack Morris back in 1992. Marcus Stroman and Matt Shoemaker opened the season by tossing seven scoreless innings each, and in the third game of the year it was Sanchez who kept the streak going by being almost equally as effective.

“He was outstanding,”Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He looked just like he did in Spring Training. He was commanding all of his pitches. He was throwing 96-97, which is great news, and he was in control the whole time. … [It tells me] that he's good to go. That he's where he was two years ago, which is great news for all of us. Really happy to see that.”

Sanchez’s strong outing might be the biggest development for the Blue Jays during the first series of the year. After experiencing a velocity drop in 2018, Sanchez looked like his old self against Detroit. In the first inning, Sanchez’s fastball sat 95 mph and topped out at 97.1. Even as the game progressed, Sanchez’s velocity remained strong with an overall average of 94.8 on all fastballs, according to Statcast. That’s a noticeable uptick from 2018 when he averaged 93.7.

Another sign that Sanchez might be returning to his previous form can be found in his pitch usage. The native of California had a lot of trouble throwing his curveball during each of the last two seasons, because of blister issues on his right hand. It wasn’t a problem against the Tigers, as Sanchez went to the offspeed pitch 16 times, which at 18 percent of the time was much higher than last year’s usage of 12.

“That’s always been a huge pitch for me, I just didn’t throw it enough,” Sanchez said. “I did some things in Spring Training that allowed me to be more consistent with it, and it’s going to pay off as time goes on.

“Going into the offseason, there was an emphasis on trying to master all three [pitches]. Obviously, I’m in a better spot than I was last year. Not so much of a hump in my curveball, more off that fastball lane and it’s diving down.”

Despite all of the scoreless innings, Sanchez wasn’t exactly perfect on Saturday afternoon. He battled some control issues, and threw only 55 of his 90 pitches for strikes, while striking out six and walking three. He’ll likely want to be a bit more economical with his pitch count, but he did get into the sixth inning and would have received an opportunity to close out the frame if it hadn’t been his first start of the year.

Sanchez got himself into trouble at a few different points during the game. In the first, Detroit had runners on the corners. In three of the next four innings, Sanchez put at least one baserunner in scoring position but each time found a way to escape the threats unscathed. It was Sanchez’s first scoreless outing since he tossed five effective innings against the Angels on May 23, 2018 and his first victory since Sept. 18, of the same year.

“Awesome,” Smoak said after the game, when asked about Sanchez. “What he has gone through the last few years, and to know how good he can be, it's great to have him healthy. Stro and everyone else we've got. Hopefully they can continue to do that.

“When they're throwing up zeroes, you've got a chance to win. It's great. I told [pitching coach] Pete Walker, he's probably sleeping great right now. It's good. Keep throwing up zeroes as many times as you can.”

By the numbers

The Blue Jays have picked up shutouts in back-to-back games for the first time since Sept. 23-24, 2016 vs. the Yankees. Last year, Toronto tossed three shutouts all season, which trailed only the Tigers for the fewest in the Major Leagues. Detroit had just two shutouts in 2018.

Toronto also became one of only four teams since 1995 to open the season with 19 scoreless innings from its rotation, and the first since the Twins picked up 21 scoreless innings to open 2018. Sanchez’s performance against the Tigers was one he’s been through before, with a sparkling 1.23 ERA in eight career games vs. Detroit.

“It’s a good start for sure,” Sanchez said. “Shoe, we know what he’s been through out west. I guess what I’m saying is, we know we haven’t seen him too much. Clayton [Richard], we haven’t seen him too much. Obviously, guys like Marcus and myself, we’ve been around the league, and we know what we can do in this division. It’s a little different.

“I’m excited to see what they’ve got. Shoe, obviously, what he did last night was impressive. It’s just about staying together as a unit, and pushing each other to pass the baton, really. Hopefully [Trent] Thornton goes out there tomorrow and gives us a good showing and we just keep passing the torch.”