Aaron Sanchez sat in the Toronto Blue Jays dugout on Wednesday for the first time in a long time, on a game day, feeling lucky to be there.
It was likely a relief for the 26-year-old, who has missed most of the past two seasons because of finger injuries, never a good thing when you throw fastballs for a living.
“Honestly, I didn’t feel I was going to make it back,” Sanchez said when asked how it felt to return after a two-month hiatus. “I mean, I’ve missed so much time the last few years.
“Just to be able to be back here, hopefully contribute these last weeks I have. I’m looking forward to it.”
If all goes well on a throwing side-session on Thursday, Sanchez will be cleared to start on Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies at Rogers Centre.
“I’m ready to go,” Sanchez vowed.
For two seasons, the Blue Jays have waited patiently to crown the lanky right-hander as the ace. It would seem a natural progression following his break-out season in 2016 in which he compiled a 15-2 record and won the American League earned-run title with a mark of 3.00.
But a litany of finger issues has prevented Sanchez’s coronation.
Last year it was a nagging blister on his middle right finger that restricted him to 36 innings.
This year, it was a freak encounter with a heavy piece of luggage – about 23 kilograms by Sanchez’s reckoning – that resulted in a bruised right index finger and sent him back to the DL after 15 starts.
The injury happened just before Sanchez pitched on June 21, in his home state of California against the Anaheim Angels.
Just a bad bruise, Sanchez thought at the time, and he was loath even to tell reporters how the injury happened, only saying at the time it was not game-related.
On Wednesday, sitting in the Blue Jays dugout before Toronto played the series finale against the Baltimore Orioles, he was a little more expansive.
“Still not important,” he said with an icy stare, before getting into the story.
“It got stuck up in my suitcase and I didn’t want to say it then because I saw Salvador Perez go down with the same injury and I didn’t want to get laughed at. And it’s probably none of your business how it happened.”
By stuck, Sanchez meant his finger bent awkwardly in the luggage handle as it started to lurch awkwardly to one side.
“The bag started falling, it happened all in a span of 30 seconds,” he said. “I pulled my finger, I said ow. My knuckle got super fat.
“I pitched that day, it probably didn’t help. But it was the first time I was going to pitch in front of my family as a professional. And I wanted to see what I could do.”
Not much, as it turned out. Sanchez was yanked from after just one inning after he allowed two runs and two hits in what turned into an 8-5 Angels victory. He hasn’t pitched since.
Now, following two rehab starts, Sanchez and the Blue Jays feel he is ready to return.
In his last rehab start on Monday night, pitching for New Hampshire at the Double A level, Sanchez allowed three earned runs over 4 1/3 innings, throwing 86 pitches, 42 of them for strikes.
Not exactly a masterpiece, but Sanchez said the important thing is he felt pain free.
“I don’t get attached to numbers in rehab starts,” Sanchez said. “I’m out there to make sure I’m working on what I need to work on. I’m throwing changeup and curveballs in counts I would never throw [them].
“I got 80 pitches to work on what I needed to work on.”
Before he was injured, Sanchez was scuffling a bit with a 3-5 record and a 4.52 ERA. His fastball’s average velocity was down a couple ticks to 93.7 miles an hour and his walks per nine innings ratio had risen to 5.08 from 2.95 that he enjoyed in 2016.
Toronto manager John Gibbons said he wasn’t bothered by any of that.
“He hasn’t been as sharp,” the manager conceded. “Some of that may have something to do with the finger stuff.
“You know what, he’s going to walk guys in his career, it’s just his style of pitching. He’s got great movement, sometimes it’s tough holding the zone. Sometimes you don’t get the calls.”