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How Jays’ Marco Estrada found success in the slow lane

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Marco Estrada, left, laughs with manager John Gibbons, right, during spring training in Dunedin, Fla., on Feb. 15.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Marco Estrada's road to slowness began early in the 2012 season, when the right-handed starter was with the Milwaukee Brewers and his pitches would top out in the mid-90-mile-an-hour range.

Then, batting in a game against the San Francisco Giants, a quirk play led to an injury that forced his reinvention as a pitcher.

"I hit a line drive down third base and I thought the guy was going to catch it," Estrada recalled earlier this week at Blue Jays spring training. "But it went right over [the third baseman] so he didn't catch it. And I stopped, saw he missed it, pushed off turning it up and the next thing I know I hear, 'Pop.'"

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That was the sound of his right quadriceps muscle tearing.

"I have a hole there right now," Estrada said, rolling up his right pant leg to proudly display the fading remnants of a scar.

A trip to the disabled list ensued and when Estrada returned to the lineup he discovered he couldn't throw as hard as he used to.

The speed of his once-half-decent fastball, which used to race into the catcher's mitt at somewhere around 95 miles an hour, was now lagging at around 88. Estrada had to discover how to navigate life in the slow lane.

For a major-league pitcher, a downturn of six or seven ticks on the radar gun is a huge slide, and Estrada had to rethink his game if he wanted to remain an effective big-leaguer.

He became a control freak and learned how to live on the corners of the plate, keep the ball down, and deftly alternate pitch speeds to baffle hitters.

He developed a change-up, and it is one of the best in the game. Last season, he threw that pitch 26.6 per cent of the time to lead all major-leaguers.

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With his fastball averaging in the high-80s, Estrada's change-up would usually creep in about 10 mph slower and the deception helped make him one of the toughest pitchers to hit.

He held his opponents to a .203 batting average, the stingiest in the American League and third best overall. Estrada's solid contribution helped elevate the Toronto rotation into one of baseball's best.

Wednesday, under mostly overcast skies off the Gulf of Mexico, was the Blue Jays' first official workout for pitchers and catchers.

This season, if the Blue Jays hope to make a third consecutive charge into the playoffs, they will need to see the continued success of their starting five.

The group that finished last year, and helped lift Toronto into the AL Championship Series – Estrada, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman – are all back and looking forward to digging in.

"I think they're going to have to repeat what they did last year," said Kevin Pillar, the Blue Jays defensive whiz in centre field. "And we don't expect anything less.

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"Obviously [Stroman] didn't have the type of year that he wanted to have. I expect him to be better. I think a full year with Liriano in the rotation is going to be huge. Obviously Sanchez is just starting to hit his stride and Happ's been one of the best pitchers in the last season and a half. I expect him to be the same guy."

In a season in which the Blue Jays starters led the majors in total innings pitched, only Stroman had what could be considered a so-so year.

At times effective, other times erratic, Stroman finished 9-10. His 4.37 earned-run average was not where he wanted it to be.

On the other side of the ledger was Happ, a 20-game winner and Sanchez, 15-2, whose 3.00 ERA led all AL starters.

Liriano, a trade-deadline addition who essentially knocked R.A. Dickey out of his starting role, fit in very nicely, with eight starts over the final two months of the season, going 2-2 with a 2.92 ERA.

And then there was Estrada, pitching all year with a herniated disk, who was selected to his first All-Star Game.

His overall record of 9-9 does not seem over the top, but the Blue Jays did not do him any favours in his starts, averaging a staff-low four runs a game when he was on the mound. Happ, on the other hand, received a team-best 6.3 runs an outing.

When he first came to the Blue Jays for the start of the 2015 season in a trade with the Brewers, Estrada said it was a huge confidence boost and gave him a chance to learn from the slow-pitch master, Mark Buehrle.

Buehrle won more than 200 games during a marvellous 16-year career and featured a fastball that was hard-pressed to top 85 mph.

"Watching him pitch, he's that guy throwing 80-83, 84, whatever it was and you see how quick his outs are, how well he locates and he just seems to get everybody out," marvelled Estrada about the pitcher whose contract expired following the 2015 season. "And that makes you realize it's not always about speed.

"You locate a pitch and you can be really successful in this game. And that's basically what he taught me."

Sanchez remains his ever-confident self, and his steely-eyed nature should help him in his quest to emerge as one of baseball's top throwers.

Last season he added a good curve ball to his arsenal and this season he hopes to mimic Estrada and develop a better change-up. And better yet, he won't have to pitch with an innings restriction hanging over his head, as he did in 2016.

"I feel in our eyes we got five really good, above-average pitchers competing with each other every five days, making sure we stay together, making sure we feed off each other, making sure that we got each other's backs from Day 1 to Day 162," Sanchez said. "And that's what it takes.

"We found a lot of success in that last year and it's just something we can continue this year."

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