TORONTO -- If the Blue Jays are going to remain relevant in the race for the second American League Wild Card spot, they're going to need Henderson Alvarez at his best.
Toronto's right-hander is one of only two pitchers remaining from the starting rotation that began the year. Despite being only 22 years old, his ability will have to play a key role in any success.
Alvarez has shown glimpses of that this season, and Saturday marked one of the high points -- as he tossed seven strong innings while the Blue Jays received home runs from three different players in a 5-1 victory over Detroit at Rogers Centre.
"I felt great," said Alvarez, who bounced back after allowing seven runs in his last start against Boston. "All of my pitches were down in the zone, and every pitch that I threw was working today."
Alvarez's subpar outing in Boston didn't have any type of carryover effect in his subsequent effort in Toronto. He relied heavily on a mid-90s sinker, which was accompanied by an effective changeup and improved slider, en route to permitting just one run on five hits while striking out four.
There were signs early in the game that Alvarez was in line for a good outing. He had a 7.58 first-inning ERA entering Saturday's matinee, in part because of a tendency to overthrow his sinker early on. That takes away from the late movement and often provides hitters with an opportunity to aggressively attack pitches in the zone.
But Alvarez was able to avoid that problem against the Tigers. He was also aided by some strong play in the field. Third baseman Brett Lawrie opened the game by snagging a hard line drive, while Travis Snider followed later in the inning with a diving catch in left.
The two plays allowed Alvarez to settle into a groove early in the game -- a luxury that he hasn't enjoyed much this season. His lone blemish occurred in the fourth, when he surrendered a two-out single to Delmon Young before Brennan Boesch hit an RBI double to the gap in left-center field.
Overall, Alvarez limited Detroit to 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position, while stranding a total of four base runners in his first career outing against the Tigers.
"I was really impressed with him," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He has a real live arm. Looks like he might be a little erratic at times, but he has a good sinker, good velocity. He was impressive. I liked him a lot. He has good stuff."
Alvarez managed to get through the seventh, which was good enough to record his 11th quality start in 20 outings this year. Seven of those came in his first eight starts of the season, and Saturday marked just the second time since June 12 that he was able to pitch more than six innings.
Blue Jays manager John Farrell credited part of the success to Alvarez switching back to the third-base side of the rubber. Toronto opted to make the switch earlier this month, and a return to Alvarez's old spot on the mound has increased his level of comfort.
"I think more than anything, it has brought back the depth to his sinker," Farrell said. "When he does throw his changeup, it can make it move away from a right-handed hitter, almost acting like an offspeed slider.
"But, more importantly, it's where he feels most comfortable -- and that's the main factor in all of this. Any time he feels comfortable, he's going to be better -- with more consistent stuff -- and that has carried over."
The Blue Jays jumped out to an early lead with right-hander Anibal Sanchez on the mound for Detroit. The recently acquired starter allowed an opposite-field home run to Edwin Encarnacion to lead off the fourth. Encarnacion's 28th blast of the year was his second homer and fifth RBI in the past three games.
Yunel Escobar, who had missed the past three games with tightness in his lower back, returned to the Blue Jays' lineup and recorded his seventh home run of the year with a solo shot to left-center field in the sixth. In the following frame, Colby Rasmus added his 18th home run of the season on a 2-0 fastball in his first career start at designated hitter.
Sanchez was charged with all five runs on eight hits in six-plus innings during his first outing since being traded by the Marlins earlier this week. The three home runs allowed matched a career high, and it was the first time he walked more than two in his past five outings.
"It was definitely weird at the beginning," Rasmus said of the rare day off from defensive duties. "But I just stayed focused [and] into the game, watching [Sanchez] pitch and what he was trying to do to the hitters. It gave me a better chance when I got up there, and I just tried to stay loose, get up there and give it all I had."
The Blue Jays have now won six of their last eight games since being swept in a recent road series by the Yankees. Toronto will have an opportunity to go for a sweep of its own when the club closes out the three-game set on Sunday afternoon.