TORONTO -- A day before his first career postseason start, Blue Jays right-hander Aaron Sanchez reflected on his journey throughout the 2016 season, a journey that was initially destined to end in the bullpen and one that wasn't expected to last as long as it has after a career-high 192 innings.
The Blue Jays and Sanchez, however, are certainly happy with the way things have turned out. The hope is that Sanchez can close out Toronto's best-of-five American League Division Series against Texas with a third consecutive victory on Sunday at Rogers Centre. Game 3 will be televised at 7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. CT on TBS in the United States as well as on Sportsnet (English) and TVA (French) in Canada. The game will also be broadcast in Spanish on MLB Network.
"I'm ready. I'm excited," Sanchez said at Saturday's team workout. "This is why you work so hard; for moments like this, opportunities like these. I couldn't be more prepared to come out and lock this thing up for us."
Sanchez's preparation for the rigors of a deep run started in the offseason, when the 24-year-old worked alongside teammate Marcus Stroman. Sanchez bulked up and added 25 pounds to make a full-time transition as a member of the rotation.
Still, question marks about workload surrounded Sanchez through Spring Training -- where he wrestled the fifth spot in the rotation away from Gavin Floyd -- and persisted throughout the year, most notably around the non-waiver Trade Deadline, when it appeared a near certainty that Sanchez would be moved to the back end of a struggling bullpen.
After meetings with Toronto's brass, the acquisition of Francisco Liriano and input from several players, Sanchez remained a starter to close out the season, with the Blue Jays shifting to a six-man rotation in early August and then giving Sanchez a short stint to rest in the Minor Leagues.
Those precautions have worked out, with Sanchez helping Toronto clinch home-field advantage in the Wild Card Game on the final day of the season at Fenway Park. His latest challenge is a chance to close out a Rangers team that won 95 games and the AL West.
In two starts against the Rangers in 2016, Sanchez finished with a pair of no-decisions, giving up nine earned runs over 13 2/3 innings. Toronto set its rotation to stay on turn and continue to preserve Sanchez's innings, meaning Sunday's start will likely be his only action of the series.
"We know we are facing a good pitcher in Sanchez," Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus said. "But sometimes you want to face the best and beat the best. Tomorrow will be a great challenge for us. We have to be aggressive. We know he is a pitcher who likes to be aggressive. We don't want him to get comfortable. Get some guys on base, put the pressure on him and make him feel uncomfortable."
Sanchez finished his first full regular season in the Majors with the lowest ERA among qualified starters in the AL (3.00) and the highest winning percentage (.882) after going 15-2 in 30 starts. While the Blue Jays are hoping to limit his innings in the postseason, the electric right-hander has yet to show signs of slowing down.
"I knew what type of team we had [coming into the year]," Sanchez said. "Going back to the Trade Deadline when there was speculation about me going to the bullpen, that's why I was so adamant about me staying in the rotation. I knew we had something special and I wanted to be a part of it. The way that I've come up through the Minor Leagues, what I've done for the first four and a half months of the season, I'm just happy that we're in a position to do that."
Sanchez was part of Toronto's postseason run last season as a reliever, pitching nine games out of the bullpen and allowing one unearned run over 7 1/3 innings. He was on the mound during a bizarre seventh inning in Game 5 of the ALDS, when catcher Russell Martin's throw ricocheted off the bat of Shin-Soo Choo and allowed the go-ahead run to score. The Blue Jays responded in the bottom half of that inning with Jose Bautista's three-run home run and subsequent bat flip. Sanchez noted that taste of postseason baseball has helped him prepare for his start on Sunday.
"Being able to get my feet wet in the postseason last year was huge," Sanchez said. "Just understanding that despite the atmosphere it's still the same game, even though it does say postseason on everybody's patch. I'm going to go out there, stay in the moment and have fun with it. I've prepared all season for moments like these and I'm excited for what's ahead."
Alykhan Ravjiani is a reporter for MLB.com based in Toronto. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.