Posted on September 15, 2016 by Bryan Zarpentine

Toronto Blue Jays Marco Estrada

Image via cbssports.com

The Toronto Blue Jays are slowly but surely losing their grip on a playoff spot, posting a record of 3-9 thus far in September. Part of the problem may be a lingering injury to one of the team’s most important pitchers. Multiple outlets are reporting that starting pitcher Marco Estrada has been pitching with a herniated disk in his back, an injury that could explain the drop in his performance over the past few months, particularly lately.

The Blue Jays have not confirmed the injury, but Estrada has been dealing with back issues all season, so reports of a herniated disk should not come as a complete shock. Estrada hurt his back during spring training and actually began the season on the DL. He then went on the DL right before the all-star break so he could get a little extra rest and be ready for the second half of the season.

However, after posting a 2.93 ERA in 16 starts during the first half of the season, averaging 6.2 innings per outing over that span, Estrada has a 5.47 ERA in 10 starts since the all-star break. He is also averaging just 5.1 innings per start during the second half. In his three starts in September, Estrada has lasted just 12.2 innings, allowing 12 earned runs on 17 hits. He has taken the loss in all three starts.

Despite his recent struggles, the Blue Jays had mostly positive things to say about Estrada’s start Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays. Estrada allowed four runs on four hits over 5.1 innings, striking out seven in a game Toronto lost 8-1.

“You could tell he was on,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said after the game. “He looked like he did the last couple of years which is encouraging. A good sign. Hopefully he can (keep pitching well) next time and we can do better with it.” Gibbons added that Estrada eventually “hit a wall” in the 6th inning, the inning in which the Rays scored three runs and broke the game open.

Estrada said after the game that it was the best he’s felt in a long time. However, it will take more than one start to believe that Estrada is healthy and ready to return to the form he had early in the season. Based on the postgame statements of Gibbons and Estrada, the Blue Jays appear to have no plans to remove him from the rotation or give him extra rest down the stretch to help keep him healthy.

The Blue Jays have six starters at their disposal, so they could certainly afford to skip one of Estrada’s starts if necessary. Of course, Toronto has six starters in part to help curb the innings count of Aaron Sanchez, who is currently dealing with a blister and has had his last start pushed back. This makes now a bad time for the Blue Jays to have to worry about skipping Estrada’s next turn in the rotation.

On top of Toronto’s concerns over multiple members of the starting rotation, the Blue Jays hold just a one game lead over the Detroit Tigers for the second wild card spot in the American League. Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners are a game and a half behind, and the New York Yankees are just two games behind, meaning there are several teams ready to pounce if the Blue Jays continue to falter.

The playoff spot that looked like a safe bet a few weeks ago is now far from a certainty with Toronto’s struggles in September. Now, more than ever, Toronto needs Estrada to step up and give them quality performances down the stretch to help the Blue Jays secure a spot in the postseason. However, whether Estrada is healthy enough to do that appears to be in doubt, giving the Blue Jays one more obstacle to climb if they want to return to the playoffs.

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