The depth and strength of the Toronto Blue Jays starting pitching has been their most valuable asset this season, and could be a separating factor when series play begins on Thursday in the American League Division Series.
Marco Estrada will take the hill for the Blue Jays in game one of the series against Cole Hamels before J.A. Happ in game two and Aaron Sanchez in game three, the first back at the Rogers Centre on Sunday. If a fourth game is needed, Marcus Stroman is the expected starter.
Estrada is coming off his second consecutive season with 175.0+ innings pitched and an ERA under 3.50. He’s also proven himself to be a big game performer in the playoffs, even doing do against these same Rangers last postseason.
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In his one start in the 2015 ALDS, the right-hander threw six and a third innings of one-run ball, allowing five hits and striking out four without issuing a single walk. He carried this over to the ALCS against the Kansas City Royals, making two successful starts that combined for 13.0 innings with a 2.77 ERA. In those outings Estrada allowed just nine hits and one walk while striking out 11.
His last regular season start came on September 30th, the series opener against Boston, so he enters Tuesday well rested. In his last three starts, Estrada has allowed just two earned runs over 19.0 innings (0.95 ERA) with 19 strikeouts and seven walks.
The left-hander Happ will follow on Friday afternoon and is coming off the best season of his career at age 33. Happ finished the campaign 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA, and his total of 195.0 innings pitched is 23.0 innings beyond his previous career high for a regular season.
Happ’s playoff experience is limited to just one start and seven relief appearances, two of which came in the 2009 World Series that the Philadelphia Phillies lost to the New York Yankees. He hasn’t been back since, but ended his season with five consecutive starts in which he allowed six hits or less and two earned runs or less.
Some thought that the young Sanchez would be called upon earlier in this series, but even while the gloves have come off a bit, his workload is still being closely monitored by the team. His 192.0 regular season innings put him within reach of the 200-inning plateau that few thought he’d flirt with in 2016, so the 2017-and-on Blue Jays must still remain a back-of-mind consideration.
For his part, Sanchez claimed the American League ERA title with an even 3.00 and boasts a 15-2 record. He’s also coming off the biggest outing of his career, holding the Boston Red Sox hitless into the seventh to punch Toronto’s ticket to home field in the Wild Card.
The added rest shouldn’t cause any worry that Sanchez will be rusty, either. In 10 starts made this season on six or more days rest, Sanchez holds a 2.15 ERA and has held opponents to a .590 OPS against.
Notes – Francisco Liriano does not appear to be in line for a start in the ALDS, and barring an injury or poor outing from Stroman in game four, it’s unlikely that the left-hander moves back into the rotation. Expect him to be used as part of the group that bridges the gap between Toronto’s starters and closer Roberto Osuna, should he return in time for game one. Along with multi-inning work, Liriano could also be used situationally against left-handed hitters should the need present itself. In Tuesday’s A.L. Wild Card game, Liriano was credited with the win after pitching one and two-thirds innings with one strikeout and not runners allowed.