TORONTO – Aaron Sanchez didn’t know which Boston Red Sox hitters he’d be facing, and he didn’t know the score.
Making his major league debut against Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli protecting a one-run lead, the Toronto Blue Jays’ top prospect just tried to pretend no one was in the batter’s box.
“My mentality out there was just me and the catcher,” Sanchez said.
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With 35,696 fans watching, Sanchez did just about the best he could do, working two perfect innings to help preserve Toronto’s 6-4 victory over the Red Sox on Thursday night at Rogers Centre.
“To be in that kind of ball game, that’s what you dream of when you get to the big leagues,” the 22-year-old said. “Maybe not your first one, but I’m here to help the team win.”
On his second day in the majors, Sanchez debated asking bullpen catcher Alex Andreopoulos who he’d be facing. Once he finally did, Andreopoulos told him it didn’t matter.
Sanchez, considered one of the top young arms in baseball, used a mix of a fastball that topped out at 99 mph and an effective curveball to get Pedroia, Ortiz and Napoli to each fly out. Starter R.A. Dickey (8-10), who got the win by allowing four runs in six innings, watched from the clubhouse and came away impressed with how Sanchez dealt with the pressure.
“He’s coming in against the 2-3-4 hitters of the Boston Red Sox with a two-run lead as a 22-year-old young man,” Dickey said. “I thought he handled himself with great poise and hopefully that’s a microcosm of what he’s going to become.”
When Jose Bautista added to his impressive night (2-for-4 with two RBI) with a solo homer in the bottom of the seventh, Sanchez did a little fist pump in the dugout knowing he had just a little more breathing room to work with. He didn’t need it.
Sanchez caught Daniel Nava looking for his first major league strikeout, got Xander Bogaerts to ground out and struck out Stephen Drew to make it through his second inning perfect. Of his 25 pitches, 16 were strikes.
“You see different guys over the years and young kids that come up, they can look a little rattled,” manager John Gibbons said. “I don’t know how you can do it any better than that. But he look like he belonged.”
On the mound, Sanchez tried to calm his nerves, remembering what his triple-A debut was like. He managed to keep from thinking about the moment until after his outing was done.
“I think at the end when Gibby told me that I was done and he gave me a big smile and he said, ‘It’s OK to smile,’ I think that’s when kind of everything hit me that I’d just pitched in the big leagues for the first time,” Sanchez said.
The Blue Jays (53-49) are sure glad he did. Barring a complete game or close to it by Dickey, Gibbons knew Sanchez was going to pitch Wednesday night because of how beaten up the bullpen was.
When Dickey gave up a three-run home run to Ortiz in the first before even recording an out, it looked like it could be a long night for the knuckleballer. Instead, the Blue Jays tied the score in the bottom of the inning and settled down.
“The better thing was the way the team responded after falling behind 3-0,” Gibbons said. “That’s key. They throw up a goose egg there, the emotions of the game, you don’t know where it goes from there. Of course we turn around and score, it evens things out again.”
Dickey kept the Red Sox (47-54) off the board until Nava and Bogaerts hit back-to-back doubles in the fifth to make it 4-3. But in the sixth a triple by second baseman Ryan Goins tied it, and an error by Bogaerts at third on what would’ve been an inning-ending groundout by Reyes gave the Blue Jays the lead.
That was the situation Sanchez faced, with his parents in attendance and major league career in front of him. Catcher Josh Thole said his fastball “felt like 130” after Dickey’s knuckleball, but the rookie did everything else like a seasoned veteran.
“It was nice to see him get in the ball game and be calm and just real even-keel when he was out there, not breathing heavy, there was no anxiety I felt,” Thole said. “He commanded all of his pitches really well, even threw a couple change-ups that I thought he was commanding well. Any time you’re throwing 98 and you’ve got a breaking ball like that, it makes it easy back there to call a game for him.”
Under any circumstances, it would’ve been a special night for Sanchez. But Gibbons was glad for the contribution the right-hander made in an important victory.
“To give us two easy, shut-down innings was huge for the ballclub. He’ll always remember that,” Gibbons said. “We brought him here for a reason: Not just to debut, we brought him here to help us and that was a good start.”
Gibbons joked at the start of his news conference that he wanted to focus on team accomplishments before individuals because the Blue Jays are in a pennant race, chasing down the American League East-leading Baltimore Orioles. But in the scope of history, Dickey hopes Sanchez’s debut is remembered as something special.
“I think he was fantastic, and hopefully that’s a glimpse kind of through the window of what might be,” Dickey said. “I think it’s pretty neat to see something like that unfold.”
Notes — Ortiz’s first-inning home run was his fourth in the three-game series and 37th in his 107th career game at Rogers Centre, good for first all time among visitors. He passed Alex Rodriguez. … Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen, who struggled in a non-save situation Tuesday after coming back from illness, pitched a flawless ninth for his 14th of the season … Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz took a bouncer to the side of the face in the first inning but remained in the game. Buchholz allowed four earned runs and five total on six hits to get the loss.
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