TORONTO — Aaron Sanchez was supposed to be in the Blue Jays bullpen by now. Instead, the All-Star righthander will start against the Texas Rangers on Sunday night, hoping to pitch Toronto into the AL Championship Series.
When the 24-year-old Sanchez cracked Toronto’s starting rotation after a solid performance in spring training, the team said it planned to move him to a relief role at some point to limit his workload. The thinking was a full season of starting would be too much for a pitcher whose previous career high was 133 1-3 innings, reached at three levels in 2014.
“We were all set that he was going to eventually end up in the bullpen,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said as both teams worked out Saturday for Game 3 of the AL Division Series. “That was the plan in spring training.”
Those plans went out the window as Sanchez pitched like an ace, earned an All-Star berth, and led the AL with a 3.00 ERA.
“We thought it would be crazy to take him out of that role,” Gibbons said. “He’s been so good, one of the best pitchers in baseball.”
Sanchez got extra rest between starts over the final two months, even spending 10 days in the minor leagues, in order to stay fresh. Toronto also acquired left-hander Francisco Liriano at the trade deadline and briefly used a six-man rotation to spread the work out even more.
Neither the extended rest, nor the 10 days he spent at Class A Dunedin, were any kind of issue to Sanchez.
“I knew we had something special with this club and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “To be here to pitch in a game like [Game 3], I’m just blessed with the opportunity to go out there and compete.”
Sanchez hasn’t pitched since allowing one run in seven innings to beat Boston on the final day of the regular season, a victory that ensured Toronto would host the AL wild-card game.
Sanchez made one start against the Rangers this season, and it wan’t his best. He allowed six earned runs, matching a season worst, and seven hits in 6 2-3 innings of a 7-6 loss on May 15. That game also featured a brawl between Rangers infielder Rougned Odor and Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista, an incident that happened after Sanchez had already left the game.
With Texas facing elimination after losing the first two games at home, Sanchez presents a tough test in an even tougher situation. Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus said the key is to stay aggressive at the plate.
“He’s a power pitcher and we know he’s going to try and establish himself and his pitch early,” Andrus said. “Don’t let him get comfortable. When you face guys like him, the last thing you want is them to feel comfortable on the mound.”
Righthander Colby Lewis, who is 4-1 with a 2.38 ERA in nine career postseason games, will start for the Rangers.
“He can definitely be our stopper,” Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said.
Texas has not been swept in a playoff series since back-to-back ALDS losses to the Yankees in 1998 and 1999. Dating to 2015, the Rangers have lost five straight postseason games, all to Toronto.
“There’s no panic in this club,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister said.
Liriano, who has made two relief appearances this postseason, sustained a concussion when he was struck in the back of the head by Carlos Gomez’s line drive in Toronto’s 5-3 win in Game 2 on Friday.
Trainer George Poulis said Liriano felt good after undergoing tests Saturday but said there is no timetable for Liriano’s return.
“The symptoms were very good,” Poulis said. “We’re going to examine him each day and just go from there.”
Players who sustain a concussion must be cleared by Major League Baseball before returning.
Liriano and Gomez were teammates in Minnesota and remain good friends. Gomez said he spoke to Liriano on the phone Friday night and was relieved to hear his friend was not seriously hurt.
“I slept better knowing he didn’t have any problems,” Gomez said, adding that he and Liriano had discussed going for dinner together on Saturday night.
So, did Gomez plan on picking up the check after nailing his pal in the head?
“We’re both rich, so it doesn’t matter,” he joked.
Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis, who was scratched from Game 2 with a sore right knee, had an MRI Saturday morning. He is day-to-day with a bone bruise but has no structural damage, Poulis said.