By Alexis Brudnicki
Marco Estrada has never felt this way before, and he can’t explain why he does now.
The 32-year-old right-hander is taking the mound and attempting to save the Blue Jays from elimination for the second time this post-season, and he feels more comfortable than he’s ever been.
Estrada’s newfound confidence might have led him to the best year he’s ever had, or perhaps his incredible season inspired the conviction that he and his teammates have found in him, but either way he’s feeling good. And after giving Toronto new life with its back against the wall versus the Rangers in the American League Division Series, he will look to do the same against the Royals in this second round.
“It’s been a completely different mindset this year,” Estrada said. “I don’t know how to explain it and it might sound cocky but I just feel confident out there. I feel good. I feel like we’re going to win every time.
“I feel like we’re going to win every game, but when I’m on the mound I just feel like we’re going to win and I don’t have to worry about giving up a run or two because these guys are going to score a bunch for me anyways.”
This is the easy part.
Right at home on the hill, the former sixth-round pick of the Washington Nationals waits for his moment every day he isn’t scheduled to start, anxiously watching each pitch and every at-bat, feeling every single emotion with and for his teammates, an entirely different experience than his day in the rotation.
“That’s the hardest thing,” he said. “I don’t get nervous when I’m playing, I’m nervous while I’m on the bench watching my teammates out there competing their butts off for us. It makes it really hard to not be able to do anything because you want to help these guys out any way you can, but if me screaming my butt off on the bench is what they need from me, that’s what I’ll do those days I’m not playing. Obviously I would prefer to be out there.”
Out there, on a big league mound, in the post-season for the second time in his eight seasons in the majors.
It’s a place he didn’t realize he might be until he got to Double-A in 2008 and was playing for the Harrisburg Senators. An opportunity his wife Janai had never imagined until Estrada’s collegiate career took him to California State University at Long Beach after his start at Glendale Community College. It’s a dream his mother Sylvia could have never pictured for her five-year-old son in Sonora, Mex., who had never gone to school or picked up a baseball.
That didn’t happen until he was six. Sylvia’s sister had married an American and moved to California, and when her mother went to visit them, Estrada’s grandmother stayed. It wasn’t long after that when Sylvia’s brother and other sister followed suit. Her family had essentially left her alone in Mexico, so she departed, with Marco in tow.
Estrada’s grandmother shared her love of the game with him early, often taking him to watch Mexican League games before they left the country. When Sylvia and the young Estrada arrived in the States, she signed him up right away, and he excelled despite having a later start than his teammates. What she didn’t know, and couldn’t have fathomed, was that it was the beginning of a successful high school, junior college, Division-I, and pro career.
Janai thought it was just fun. She and Estrada met at his cousin’s birthday party when they were both 17 years old and in the 11th grade. She loved sports, and was also good at them, so she figured baseball would be a part of their lives through college and that would be it.
His thoughts were similar. Estrada was enjoying playing while studying criminal justice, hoping to become a parole officer or work with his uncle at a juvenile detention facility. Janai thought he might like to become a coach, but he was focused on helping troubled youth. Then in Estrada’s senior year, agents started calling, letters arrived, and the interest was evident. By the time he was drafted, he had been waiting.
Estrada started his professional journey in the New York-Penn League as a 21-year-old and began to realize how hard the road really is, and wasn’t sure he would make it, especially after an injury that landed him on the disabled list for almost his entire second year. He and Janai eloped while he was down and out in 2006 in Las Vegas without telling anyone but their parents. She worked in digital cinema at home and visited maybe once a month as he continued the minor league journey.
It wasn’t until his fourth season that Estrada set his sights higher.
“Not until I got to Double-A,” he said. “In college, I thought I was going to be good enough to at least get drafted. I wasn’t sure how high, how low, but I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I was working toward it; I just wasn’t sure how it was going to work out.
“Then I got to Double-A and was having a pretty good year and got moved up to Triple-A really quick and I kind of thought to myself, ‘Man I’ve got a pretty good shot to make it by the end of the year.’ Luckily I did that year. It was 2008 and I got called up in August and the rest is history.”
Estrada had two short stints in the majors with the Nationals before the Brewers picked him up off waivers in 2010. Just prior to that, he and Janai married again, having a more significant ceremony with the money they had made by that time. During the all-star break in 2010, they also welcomed their first child, daughter Brooklyn. They’ve since added son Blake to the fold.
Estrada’s second season was the highlight of his time in Milwaukee, when the team headed into playoffs after leading the National League Central division for the majority of the year.
“Besides this year, in 2011 when we made the playoffs that entire year was so much fun,” Estrada said. “We were basically in first place the whole year, winning all the time, basically what we’re doing now. This would probably be my high point before this year.”
He’s made new highlights in his first season with the Blue Jays, traded to the team in November for Adam Lind. At first, he and his family were worried – a new team, a new city, a whole new country - but his experience in Toronto has been more than he could have asked for, and he couldn’t be more grateful to be starting meaningful games in the middle of October with the season on the line.
“It’s more important for me because it’s in the moment, it’s what’s going on right now,” Estrada said. “But also I was a reliever then, in 2011. It’s still really important, don’t get me wrong, but now being a starter there’s a little bit more pressure on you.
“You know the whole team is depending on you those first few innings, and hopefully you can go all nine, but while you’re out there everybody is depending on you, and it’s just fun. I’m having a blast with it and to this day my last two starts were the most important and the biggest games of my life.”
The most important games of his life, and Estrada has only become increasingly self-assured with each passing post-season day.
“I don’t know what it is, why I’ve been so calm. I like it though,” he said. “I like where my mind is. I feel confident going out there and competing, especially with the eight other guys who are behind me. That’s probably the reason why I feel so confident out there is because I’ve got a great team behind me.”