Back in the bad, old days – the middle of last month – bullpen coach Pat Hentgen walked up to Esmil Rogers in the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and asked him a question that had nagged at Hentgen since spring training.
The question: “Have you ever thrown a sinker before?” The answer: “Yes.” Another question: “If you’ve got some spare time, let’s go throw a side session. Before 4 o’clock, so you’ll be rested if needed tonight. I want to show you something, okay?” Rogers’s response: “Let’s go.”
That Rogers possesses what Hentgen described on Tuesday night as being “the inner swagger we all need,” was apparent from the day he showed up in spring training. Also apparent was that he threw a hard, straight fastball and slider. What is now apparent is that the pitcher acquired from the Cleveland Indians in a trade for the player the Toronto Blue Jays received from the Boston Red Sox for John Farrell is no longer some kind of bullpen afterthought. Armed with a sinking fastball that Hentgen was taught by former Baltimore Orioles teammate Scott Erickson, Rogers fired 6 2/3 innings of four-hit pitching in an 8-3 Blue Jays win in front of 22,852 at the Rogers Centre.
Edwin Encarnacion hit his 19th home run of the season, J.P. Arencibia slugged his 15th and Maicer Izturis hit his fourth as the Blue Jays extended their winning streak to seven games, pulling to within two games of .500 at 34-36. The Blue Jays haven’t won this many consecutive games since Aug. 30-Sept. 9, 2008, when they won 10 straight. The victory, in the second game of a three-game series, moved them one game over .500 at home at 18-17. The Blue Jays haven’t been over .500 at the Rogers Centre since the final day of the 2012 regular season.
Rogers (3-2) was the story of this game, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning before Jonathan Herrera hit a one-out single. Rogers hit a wall in the seventh, giving up two earned runs but pitching well in getting two ground-ball outs with two on and none out. He was in the dug-out when Izturis’s fielding error brought in the Rockies' third run with Aaron Loup on the mound. It was Rogers’s fourth start, during which he has allowed four earned runs in 21 innings.
Hentgen, a former Cy Young Award winner, said that the sinker grip that he and pitching coach Pete Walker showed Rogers amounted to a slight tweak in the angle of the ball. “The ball comes out of the hand in a way where the seam of the ball feels like a four-seamer (rising fastball) against the pitcher’s knuckle,” Hentgen explained. “He took to it quickly. He used it out of the bullpen right away and a couple of days later he got [the Tampa Bay Rays'] Evan Longoria to ground into a double play.”
What the sinker has done, according to Blue Jays catcher Arencibia, is prevent opposing hitters from “ambushing his fastball. The sinker really is the biggest difference between him as a starter and as a reliever.”
Arencibia has now homered in three of his last four games and Tuesday’s homer and RBI double was part of a three-hit performance that took his average to .222, the highest it’s been since June 4. It was also his second multi-hit game in three and led manager John Gibbons to suggest that “he’s really heating up.
“There’s no question he was cold there for a while,” Gibbons said. “And he takes a lot of heat for his catching but let’s face it: he’s the guy back there and we’re on a roll. I hope he gets some credit.”
Arencibia’s tendency to strike out and allergy to walks made him a target for both media critics and fans as the Blue Jays battled through a gruesome May. His work behind the plate gets skewered on a nightly basis, to the point where he all but ran up the white flag on Tuesday when asked about the pride he takes in his defensive work, essentially saying he realizes that people don’t believe it. “I talk about it,” he said, “and I really do care about it.”
Arencibia and Rogers were in sync most of the night. When Rogers got out of a second-inning jam with an inning-ending double play off the bat of Nelson Arenado – third baseman Mark De Rosa’s strong throw started it – Rogers looked in at Arencibia as they walked off the field, the pitcher smiling and holding out his arms as if to say, ‘Yeah, that’s what we wanted.’ Know this much: with Brandon Morrow shut down in his injury rehabilitation option and Ricky Romero still trying to get body and soul together, Rogers – who was originally with the Rockies - has done more than merely buy time for the Blue Jays. He’s given them food for thought. “He has a nice, loose arm,” Gibbons said. “When he keeps the ball in the strike zone, he can over-match you.”
There was, Gibbons noted, “a lot of thought and some desperation,” that went into the decision to stretch out Rogers. Fingers crossed.
“They showed confidence in me,” Rogers explained with a shrug. “Maybe what I’m doing now is giving it back to them.”