This is what Aaron Sanchez has been waiting for.
With his Toronto Blue Jays holding a 2-0 lead in the American League Division Series, the right-hander gets his first career postseason start in Game 3 on Sunday along with the chance to complete a sweep of the Texas Rangers.
This is why the 6-foot-4 pitcher put on some 25 pounds of muscle in the off-season. This is why he endured trips down to the minor leagues and spoke his mind in many conversations with team staff about whether he belonged in the Jays' starting rotation or in its bullpen.
Sanchez had begun last season as a starter, but he pulled a lat muscle in June that sidelined him for six weeks. That's when he decided he would dedicate his time to dramatically improving his strength and conditioning after the season. While he made his mark in the bullpen down the stretch of 2015, he yearned to land a spot in the starting rotation in 2016 – his second full season as a Major Leaguer.
He more than earned the spot with sensational spring training and a hot start to the year. Sanchez went 15-2 with a 3.00 ERA in 30 starts for the Jays this season. The Jays noticed a huge improvement in his command and in his ability to fight back when he fell behind in the count. They watched his confidence grow in both his curveball and his change-up. They saw the now 220-pound player become more of a complete pitcher. He was going deep into games – usually seven or eight innings – and then came the obvious debate.
Would it prove too much for the young pitcher? Should he return to the bullpen?
"The baseball world caught on to it and was analyzing the hell out of it. And we were back and forth on what the right thing to do was," said Toronto manager John Gibbons on Saturday, reflecting on their bullpen versus starter debate. "Of course, his input was very important to us. It wasn't the final say but it was important to us. And then when it got to the point where he was just so good, we all thought it was going to be crazy to take him out of that role. He was thriving – that was his future."
Toronto made every effort to keep the 24-year-old fresh and rested this season, limiting his innings where possible. They utilized a six-man rotation at times, or simply skipped his turn and sent him to Class A Dunedin for light work instead. He pitched 192 regular season innings, and the extra rest has paid off.
"I knew what type of team we had. And going back to the trade deadline, when there was speculation about me going to the pen, that's why I was so adamant about wanting to stay in the rotation," Sanchez said before Saturday's workout in Toronto. "I knew we had something special with this club, and I wanted to be a part of it in the way that I've come up through the Minor Leagues, what I've done for the first four and a half months for this season, and I'm just happy that we're in this position to do that."
He appeared in nine playoff games out of the pen in 2015, allowing one unearned run over 7 1/3 innings.
"I think that's huge, being able to get my feet wet in postseason last year out of the pen was huge," Sanchez said. "Just understanding that atmosphere, that it's still the same game, even though it does say postseason on everybody's patch."
He has watched lots of video of the two times he faced Texas in the regular season this year. He had a pair of no-decisions in which he gave up nine earned runs over 13 2/3 innings. The second game was a tough one – he was on the mound when a 6-3 lead in the seventh inning began morphing into what would become a 7-6 loss in Arlington.
Sanchez goes into the game on plenty of rest after making his last start in Toronto's final game of the regular season, last Sunday in Boston when he was the winning pitcher in the Jays' 2-1 victory. A win would put the Jays into the AL Conference Series against either the Boston Red Sox or the Cleveland Indians.
"That's a week off since he last threw Sunday in Boston," Gibbons said. "So it's really worked out perfectly, to be honest with you."
On Saturday, Major League Baseball approved a roster substitution for the Jays due to a mild concussion sustained by left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano. The left-handed pitcher will be replaced on the Division Series roster by right-hander Danny Barnes.
Liriano will be able to re-join Toronto's roster, provided he has been ineligible to play for a minimum of seven days and his reinstatement is approved by MLB's medical director.
Liriano, who was hit in the back of the head by a line drive from Rangers' Carlos Gomez in Friday's game, went to the hospital by ambulance on a stretcher with his neck in a brace as a pre-caution on Friday in Texas. Later that day, he was cleared to get on the team flight home from Arlington.
Gibbons said there is no set timetable for the return of Jays infielder Devon Travis. An MRI revealed no structural damage to the right knee of Toronto's second baseman, after he was a late scratch from the Game 2 starting lineup because he was experiencing inflammation and pain. The team said Saturday that it's a bone bruise. Travis is unsure how the injury occurred.
Gibbons said as of Saturday, the Jays were not thinking about putting Travis on the disabled list.