Montreal’s Olympic Stadium plays host to the Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox in a final look at the AL East rivals before Toronto’s regular season commences in Tampa Bay on Sunday
One year ago, on the first Friday of April, Montreal’s very own Olympic Stadium was brought to life when the Blue Jays split a spring training series with the Cincinnati Reds in front of more than 46,000 raucous fans.
It was an emotional weekend for many Canadian baseball fans — Russell Martin Sr. played the American and Canadian anthems with the same saxophone that he used to perform with in the Montreal subway system.
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Plenty of non-baseball highlights became lasting memories. Vladimir Guerrero and Orlando Cabrera were showered with applause on Friday and Roberto Alomar and Cito Gaston received honours on Saturday. Mayor Denis Coderre was not as fortunate; he was booed relentlessly after throwing the ceremonial first pitch.
The games, on the other hand, were just a couple of ordinary spring training tune-ups that saw eight offensive and defensive replacements and five pitching changes on Friday night alone. While the Jays and Red Sox will honour Pedro Martinez this time around, from a baseball standpoint it will likely be just another spring game, with plenty of players expected to get their fair share of rest this weekend before the Blue Jays really get down to business on Sunday.
There are still a few baseball things for Jays fans to keep an eye on this weekend.
J.A. Happ‘s Final Spring Start
After 10.2 innings pitched so far this spring, Happ was the only Blue Jays starter to make the trip to Montreal.
The Blue Jays and its fans are still waiting curiously to find out which Happ they are going to get this season. Last season he was two completely different pitchers, split between his time in Seattle and then in Pittsburgh during their road to the postseason. Perhaps the most surprising irregularity was the difference in his strikeouts per nine innings.
In 108.2 innings in Seattle, Happ had a 6.8 SO/9. After the trade to the Pirates, he pitched 63.1 innings and raised his K’s per nine to 9.8 — quite the dramatic difference. While he was clearly throwing more strikes, he continued to miss bats and was able to lower his ERA, WHIP, walk rate, and home run rate significantly.
Currently sitting in the fifth starter’s role, anything in between those splits would be considered successful for Happ. With the Blue Jays offence as prolific as it is, keeping the walks down and avoiding the long ball like he did in Pittsburgh would be more than enough.
While last year was Russell Martin‘s homecoming, this year two young Canadian Blue Jays have been brought along for the ride in Montreal.
Right-handed pitcher Shane Dawson comes to Montreal as a potential starter in Saturday’s game against the Red Sox. The 22-year-old from Fort McMurray, Alberta was an honourable mention in our 2016 prospect rankings. Dawson spent the majority of last season in Lansing, but did make five starts with Dunedin towards the end of the year, which is where we can expect to see him to start the new season.
Friday is more about embracing the Canadian baseball culture than it is about plotting the X’s and O’s of the season ahead, and that is why Dawson has even been rumoured to start the second game. Whether that happens or not, we should expect to see him get out there for at least an inning on home soil.
Blue Jays catcher Mike Reeves grew up just a five-hour drive away from Montreal in Peterborough, Ontario. Reeves was drafted by the Jays in the 42nd round in 2009, but opted to go to school in Florida and was redrafted by Toronto in round 21 in 2013. Reeves, 25, has bounced around between Vancouver, Lansing, and Dunedin over the last three years and has a career minor-league slash line of .229 / .327 / .275.
Reeves will likely pinch hit or run on Saturday and experience what it’s like to don the Toronto Blue Jays jersey.
One Last Look at the Bullpen
While the big three of Roberto Osuna, Drew Storen, and Brett Cecil have already cemented their roles at the end of the bullpen, and Gavin Floyd and Jesse Chavez are likely to settle into long-relief roles, questions still remain among the bottom three. With Happ likely on a reasonable pitch count or innings limit on Friday, it leaves at least three innings on Friday wide open for the rest of the arms race. On Saturday, most of the pen will likely get into the game.
With eight spring training innings of major-league experience under his belt, Joe Biagini should be given an opportunity to see how he can handle the spotlight. After being named to the 25-man roster, Biagini will need to show that he can pitch with pressure in front of a sold-out crowd at Olympic Stadium.
Aaron Loup is on the shelf, and right-handed pitcher Ryan Tepera has been handed the reigns as an unconventional righty-on-lefty relief pitcher. His .137 BAA against left-handed hitters is far better than the .235 BAA he owns against righties, despite the small sample size. It is an interesting experiment that we could see more of this weekend in Montreal.
Arnold Leon is not flashy, but has given up just two hits in seven spring innings and it earned him a spot in the Jays bullpen. Leon is from Sinaloa, Mexico, just like his fellow bullpenian Osuna. He made his major-league debut last season with the Oakland Athletics and posted an ERA of 4.03 in 38 innings. The 27-year-old rookie has nothing to lose and needs to prove that he belongs in the Blue Jays bullpen before it’s too late. His performance in Montreal could help him fight for a chance to stay there when Marco Estrada returns from injury in the near future.