DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Based on the way Marco Estrada felt for most of last season, it's nothing short of remarkable that he was able to make 29 starts with a very respectable 3.48 ERA.Estrada hurt his back while working out prior to the first week of camp last spring, and
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Based on the way Marco Estrada felt for most of last season, it's nothing short of remarkable that he was able to make 29 starts with a very respectable 3.48 ERA.
Estrada hurt his back while working out prior to the first week of camp last spring, and the pain never really went away. He was able to take the ball on most nights, with the exception of a brief stint on the disabled list in July, but the pain was evident in pretty much everything he did.
The good news is that the issue appears to be behind him, at least for now. Back injuries are always risky business and can pop up again at any time, but Estrada is feeling better than he has in a very long time. It shows in his velocity, the way he has carried himself on the mound and the overall results this spring.
"It's night and day from where I was last year," Estrada said. "Even when the season started, I wasn't 100 percent. I was dealing with some lower-back issues, and this year I haven't had to deal with any of it. Physically, I feel great. Mentally, I'm prepared. What's important right now is that my arm feels great, my back feels good. I'm ready to get going. I've had enough of Spring Training."
Estrada will get his way when he takes the ball Monday afternoon as the Blue Jays open the regular season with a road game in Baltimore at 3:05 p.m. ET. It's the first Opening Day start of his career, and he's obviously honored by the recognition, but he couldn't help but joke that the Blue Jays "basically had a hat and they just pulled my name out and it happened to be my turn."
There's some self-deprecating humor in that line, but more than anything, it's a nod to the depth of the rotation. Most teams have a very clear order that their pitchers should be used in, but the Blue Jays have five quality options, and any of them would be fine choices for Opening Day. Toronto wanted to break up lefties J.A. Happ and Francisco Liriano and sinkerballers Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez. By picking Estrada for the opener, the club also is acknowledging his leadership role with the staff.
Once Opening Day comes and goes, none of this will really matter, but there's no denying that starting the first game of the year is a way of honoring the contributions that pitcher has made throughout his career.
"I think everybody wants to do that," manager John Gibbons said of starting Opening Day. "Of course, last year [Stroman], and this year it will be Estrada. There's an honor in it, but they all can't do it. ... Marco has pitched some of the bigger games we've had the last couple of years, so he has earned that right, but really, any of them could have."
As for the benefits of the improved health this spring?
"I've looked back a few times and I've seen 90 mph, and I don't think I touched any of that velocity last year. And it just shows where I'm at right now, physically," Estrada said. "I've worked extremely hard on the things they wanted, and it shows. Physically, I feel great, so I'm excited to get this season going. But mentally, I want to stay where I'm at.
"I don't want to go out there and say, 'Well, shoot, you feel really good right now, you can let it go.' I don't want that. I'm a finesse pitcher, I guess. I want to focus on locating pitches, and that's basically what I've done this spring."
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.