TORONTO — No foolproof formula exists for keeping a young pitcher strong through the six-month regular season and into the postseason.
So, like other teams, the Toronto Blue Jays came up with a plan for 24-year-old right-hander Aaron Sanchez prior to the beginning of spring training in February and hoped for the best.
It couldn’t have worked out much better, as Sanchez led the American League in earned run average with a 3.00 mark while compiling a 15-2 record in 30 starts for a league-best .882 winning percentage.
Sanchez pitched 192 innings in the regular season, an increase of just less than 100 over the 92.1 he threw in 2015 when he made 11 starts and 30 relief appearances.
Now, the Blue Jays hope Sanchez can keep their season alive as he will start Game 4 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday against the Cleveland Indians and ace right-hander Corey Kluber.
The Indians lead 3-0 in the best-of-seven series; the only team to overcome such a deficit was the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who rallied to beat the New York Yankees. That Red Sox teams was managed by Terry Francona, now the manager of the Indians.
The Indians originally planned to start rookie left-hander Ryan Merritt, who has pitched just four major leagues game and made only one start. However, after needing to use the bullpen for 8.2 innings in Game 3 after right-hander Trevor Bauer was forced from the game in the first because a cut on his right pinkie finger opened, Francona opted to go with Kluber in Game 4.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us, that’s an understatement, I would think,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of facing Kluber. “But (Sanchez) has turned himself into the one of the better ones in baseball. He’s been solid all year.”
Kluber will be pitching on short rest for the first time in his six-year career. He will have had just three days off since his start in Game 1.
The Blue Jays used Sanchez on the normal four days’ rest just 13 times. He pitched seven times on five days’ rest, six times with six days off between starts and three other times with at least nine days of rest.
Furthermore, Sanchez was optioned to the minor leagues for the final 10 days of August — though he did not pitch — as another way to keep his innings count down.
“I feel strong,” he said. “I’m ready to pitch as much as I’m needed.”
The Blue Jays are still cognizant of Sanchez’s workload, which is why they held him back until Game 4, meaning he would only start once in the series.
Sanchez last pitched Oct. 9 in Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers, and was torched for six runs in 5.2 innings, though the Blue Jays rallied to take him off the hook for the loss and sweep the series.
That was in stark contrast to his performance as a reliever in last year’s postseason, when the then-rookie appeared in nine games and allowed only an unearned run in seven innings.
“Hopefully, I’ll keep my emotions in check this time,” Sanchez said. “I’ve been there before last year but it was out of the pen. The roles were a little bit different.
“I’ll need to keep the excitement under control. That’s the biggest thing I’ve found. Maybe execute more pitches, just making sure I stay in the moment and keeping my feet under me.”
Having worked on such an irregular schedule throughout the year, Sanchez doesn’t anticipate having a problem with eight days between starts.
“A lot of pitchers don’t like it, but having the luxury of doing it throughout the course of the year quite a few times, it’s not anything new,” he said. “So I’m excited.”
Sanchez has a tough draw in Kluber, who has pitched 13.1 scoreless innings this October while winning the first two postseason starts of his career. He was also one of the top pitchers in the AL during the regular season, compiling an 18-9 record with a 3.14 ERA in 32 starts.
He worked seven innings to beat the Blue Jays in Game 1, allowing just three hits in the Indians’ 2-0 win at Progressive Field in Cleveland.