TORONTO -- Marco Estrada spent all of last year exceeding expectations. He was doing more of the same in his first start of 2016.
Despite an abbreviated Spring Training because of a sore back, Estrada appeared to be in midseason form by tossing seven scoreless innings against the Red Sox. With Toronto in danger of being swept, it was Estrada who rose to the occasion to secure a 3-0 victory on Sunday afternoon.
If Estrada keeps performing at his current level, at some point people will stop being surprised by his success. That still hasn't happened quite yet, but even though a lot of critics expect some type of regression this season, Estrada doesn't seem to care.
"I hope I am," Estrada said when asked if he was still surprising people. "I want to give these guys nine innings if I can. I want to give them the best effort possible. I want to do a good job for these guys, and whatever people want to think, it's up to them."
Estrada's rise to the front end of Toronto's rotation has been nothing short of astonishing. He didn't even have a starting job at the beginning of last season, but once he secured a spot in May, the veteran right-hander never looked back. He became the unheralded savior of the pitching staff and the postseason's star performer in a rotation that featured David Price and Marcus Stroman.
There were doubters every step of the way. Typically, a free-agent pitcher coming off a season in which he posted a 3.13 ERA would be in line for a lucrative long-term deal, but there was a lot of skepticism about his market value, especially after he received a qualifying offer from Toronto.
In the end, Estrada had to settle for a two-year contract worth $26 million. It was not a bad sum of money, but still a far cry from the long-term deals some of his counterparts coming off worse seasons were signing on the open market. Even so, Estrada never complained and was more than happy to return to the city where he turned his career around.
"I've only seen Marco good," manager John Gibbons said. "He was a tremendous pick-up for us last year. What he did all through the season, flirting with no-hitters, perfect games, stepping up in the playoffs. Even this year, I really didn't know what to expect going into this game with the way Spring Training went. But it was vintage Estrada, it really was."
The 32-year-old's strong outing came at a perfect time as Toronto entered Sunday having lost four straight games and was in danger of being swept by Boston in a series of three games or more for the first time since 2011. Estrada scattered five hits and two walks while striking out eight batters. Not bad for a season debut.
"I felt pretty good, still a little off, things are going to get better," Estrada said. "Just not quite 100 percent with a feel for things, but it's really close. I worked so much on the cutter, it just kind of came together today."