DUNEDIN, Fla. — Today marked the official start of spring training for the Blue Jays, as they kicked off their Grapefruit League season with a 7-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Sitting four rows up behind home plate, I was fortunate enough to get some great views of the game action, so here are some of my observations from today’s contest.
After catcher Brian Jeroloman caught the ceremonial first pitch, Jays starter Brett Cecil looked great, working low and away to strike out Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes. A visibly-slimmer Cecil pitched only one inning, but it was encouraging nonetheless and 10 of the left-hander’s 12 pitches were fastballs.
The Jays’ starting lineup might have foreshadowed what to expect on Opening Day, as it consisted of all of the regulars: J.P. Arencibia, Adam Lind, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie, Eric Thames, Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista.
Lawrie was busy in the first inning, making a running throw on a short chopper before bobbling a hard-hit grounder from Pirates second baseman Neil Walker one batter later. He was able to bounce back quickly from his error, though, as he made a routine throw to Lind following another ground ball to end the inning. Nothing much happened offensively for the Jays in the bottom of the first, but Bautista came close to hitting a mammoth home run that he just pulled foul (pictured).
Kyle Drabek pitched the top of the second, but found himself with a runner on early after Escobar was charged with an error after his throw took Lind off of the bag at first. After walking Nate McClouth, Drabek found himself with runners on first and second with nobody out.
Thankfully Lawrie made a heads up play, where he fielded a grounder and stepped on third base before throwing to first in time for the 5-3 double play. Drabek ended the frame by striking out Gorkys Hernandez.
After Lind led off the home half of the second with a walk, Encarnacion hit a broken bat single to left field and absolutely exploded out of the box, motoring around down the line and around first; nice to see the extra hustle from Eddie. Rasmus advanced the runners by hitting a grounder to Pirates first baseman Casey McGehee that was bobbled, but he was out on a bang-bang play at the bag.
That set the stage for Lawrie who, after receiving a nice ovation from the crowd, slapped a frozen rope double on the first pitch of the at-bat to the gap in left-center, scoring Lind and Encarnacion to put the Jays up 2-0. A couple of pitches later, Lawrie took off and stole third base without a throw.
Reliever Jim Hoey, claimed off waivers from the Twins back in December, pitched the top of the third, and it was easy to notice his tall, lanky frame on the mound. He was throwing all around the plate, but managed to toss a scoreless frame without allowing a hit.
Scott Richmond came in for the top of the fourth, sporting what looked to be one of the worst mustaches I’ve ever seen. He too pitched a scoreless frame without allowing a hit, and once the inning was over, Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos appeared on the concourse and mingled with a few fans.
Submariner Danny Farquhar came in for the fifth inning and allowed the only Pirates run of the game on two hits. He induced a ground ball to Lawrie in the middle of the inning that led to a slick 5-4-3 double play around the horn. Arencibia had an opportunity to throw out a base runner stealing second as well, but his throw was well ahead of the bag and to the left. Keeping an eye on his throws to second while warming up in the five innings he played, all were released well and to the right of the bag but a bit high.
In the bottom of the fifth, Thames hit the only home run of the game, a no-doubter to the opposite field in left.
As per the usual spring training format, multiple defensive substitutions took place around the middle of the game, starting with Omar Vizquel, Mike McCoy and Yan Gomes to start the top of the sixth. Gomes’ defense was tested early, as he double-clutched a throw to second and was unable to get the base runner. The next batter, he got mixed up with pitcher Ryan Tepera as the ball rolled to the backstop and the runner advanced to third. Tepera didn’t look great, but he finished with a walk and a strikeout in one scoreless inning of work.
Bautista had a close call as the inning came to a close, as he nearly misplayed a routine shallow fly to right field and was forced to make a sliding basket catch.
In the bottom of the sixth, Lawrie knocked a line drive to center that popped out of the fielder’s glove after what was nearly a diving catch. The double, Lawrie’s second on the day, scored Moises Sierra and Ben Francisco, who were brought in as pinch runners for Bautista and Encarnacion, respectively. After a bloop single to left field from Thames, Gomes had a nice at-bat, getting ahead in the count 3-1 before ripping a single to left field.
Jerry Gil, signed to a minor league deal by the Jays back in November, pitched the top of the seventh, and I was eager to see him throw after hearing some good things about him over the off-season. His off-speed stuff looked great in warm-ups and even more so against the first batter he faced, getting two swinging strikes on breaking balls to get the punchout. He then switched to his heat against Robbie Grossman, who was always behind and couldn’t catch up to it.
Jonathan Diaz, who came into the game as a pinch runner for Lawrie in the sixth, looked great at third base and closed out the seventh inning with a great diving stop followed by an equally great throw to first. After McCoy was hit by a pitch and Sierra dropped a single in right field to start the bottom of the seventh, Francisco connected perfectly with the sweet spot of his bat for an RBI single through the left side of the infield.
Luis Perez came in to pitch the eighth and did not give up a hit, but issued a four-pitch walk and got behind against another hitter. Gomes failed to block another ball that inning, so Jays bench coach Don Wakamatsu talked to him on the field for a couple of minutes about that before the bottom half of the inning.
With Travis Snider in the game for the bottom half of the frame, his ground ball to the right side found a hole, but he was thrown out thanks to a great cover by Pirates pitcher Ryota Igarashi. After hitting from the right side in his first at-bat, switch-hitter Omar Vizquel turned around and hit from the left side in the bottom of the eighth. He went 0-for-2.
Joel Carreno closed things out in the ninth, giving up one hit in a scoreless frame. He also notched one strikeout, where he threw a perfect breaking ball right over the plate with the count full to retire the batter looking.
Overall, it was great to see all of the Jays players on the field, but more importantly, it was nice to welcome baseball back; even if it was spring training. The obvious player of the game would be Lawrie, who finished the day 2-for-3 with two doubles, four RBIs, and a handful of slick fielding plays.
After the game, Anthony Gose, Travis d’Arnaud and Gomes signed autographs for fans that lined the first-base line. When a fan asked Gose when he’ll be up in Toronto, he replied, “I don’t know, whenever I have a good year”.
The Jays play the Pirates again tomorrow afternoon, this time on the road at McKechnie Field in Bradenton. With original starter Henderson Alvarez getting pushed back to Monday, Aaron Laffey will get the start for the Jays against Canadian Erik Bedard for Pittsburgh.