Blue Jays’ season-opening win a slice of masterpiece theatre

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TORONTO – The margins are really going to matter for the Toronto Blue Jays in this season of aspiration, when attention to detail and consistent execution of the game’s finer points may very well be the difference between ambitions dashed or realized.

Things like Marcus Semien ranging several steps to his left and diving to snare a D.J. LeMahieu one-hopper bound for right field, making a throw from his knees to save a run, end the fifth and keep the inning from unravelling. Teoscar Hernandez’s game-tying homer in the top of the sixth followed.

Things like Tyler Chatwood taking over from Hyun-Jin Ryu in the bottom of the sixth right after Chad Green neutralized a rally in the top half versus Gerrit Cole, and putting up a zero after the Blue Jays ace left with one on and one out in the frame.

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Things like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. not only commanding plate appearances against the overwhelming Cole, but also scooping balls on throws in the dirt from around the diamond.

Things like David Phelps delivering a miracle sinker down 2-1 in the count to Aaron Judge with the bases loaded in the seventh, producing a sharp groundball right at third baseman Cavan Biggio for an inning-ending double play.

Things like Hernandez booting it up the line on a routine grounder in the ninth to capitalize on a Gleyber Torres bobble for an infield single to create opportunity in an unrealized inning.

Things like Biggio fielding a LeMahieu chopper in the bottom of the ninth and delivering a perfect throw to Danny Jansen at the plate to cut down Mike Tauchman with the winning run and force extra innings.

‘Encouraging’ for Grichuk to see battle shown by Blue Jays in win
Consistent precision on all those fronts will be needed for the Blue Jays to hang with the American League’s elite and be a legitimate post-season contender in a five-teams-per-league playoff world. Those plays Thursday led to a 3-2 victory over the New York Yankees decided by Randal Grichuk’s RBI double in the 10th inning.

Amid the emphasis on how glitzy additions like George Springer and Semien turbo-charged a lineup able to slug with the best of them, manager Charlie Montoyo and his coaching staff made sure to emphasize the importance of tighter overall play, especially defensively.

“That was our goal from the beginning,” said Montoyo. “I told our team for us to win and get to the playoffs and do well during the season, it’s going to be pitching and defence. We did that today and it was great to see all the hard work pay off in the first game already.”

Depth was another point of emphasis and Grichuk, back in centre field with Springer opening the season on the injured list, underlined the value of roster surplus. With Jonathan Davis starting the inning at second base as a pinch-runner for Rowdy Tellez, the displaced outfielder took a Nick Nelson fastball the other way over Judge’s head in right to plate the winning run.

Julian Merryweather, a potential bullpen X-factor who was one of the final two additions to the roster after back issues slowed him this spring, flashed his ability to dominate by nearly throwing an immaculate inning. After mowing through Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton, he spiked an 0-2 slider to Torres before blowing a 99.1 m.p.h. fastball by him to seal the win.

Told by pitching coach Pete Walker to be ready for duty anytime from the third inning onwards, he instead collected his first big-league save in impressive fashion.

“I was thinking, alright, this 0-2 pitch is either going to be a perfect strike or it’s going to be in the grass, like somewhere in between there,” Merryweather said of trying to finish off Torres. “That’s where I was trying to put it. I was close to the grass.”

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Giving him that opportunity wasn’t easy for the Blue Jays in the second opening day since COVID-19 capsized everyday life. They were forced to go toe-to-toe with the Yankees before a crowd at 20 per cent capacity, producing three hours and 44 minutes of masterpiece theatre between the divisional rivals.

Ryu, discombobulating the Yankees by picking the plate apart with his fastball and changeup, duelled Cole, who struck out eight by shoving a fastball sitting at 96.8 m.p.h. and an array of sliders down the Blue Jays’ throats, to identical 5.1-inning, two-run pitching lines.

Consecutive singles by Hernandez, Guerrero and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. opened the scoring in the second and the Yankees responded in the bottom half when Gary Sanchez turned a misplaced fastball into a two-run homer.

Ryu otherwise went largely unthreatened, although he needed the Semien play in the fifth to strand a pair. Minus Cole’s raw power, the left-hander needs a strong defence to collect the soft contact he induces.

“It’s something that we’ve been working on and thought we should focus on since winter,” Ryu said through interpreter J.S. Park. “With all these practices, we showed what we can do and if I could grade our fielders, today would be 100 per cent in defence. We played pretty well.”

Ryu praises the Blue Jays bullpen for performance on Opening Day
One batter after the Semien play kept the game 2-1, Cole hung a middle-middle slider to Hernandez, who sent it 437 feet to left at 110.3 m.p.h. off the bat to tie things up.

“You know the way he pitches – he’s pretty good, everyone knows that,” said Hernandez. “He missed on that pitch, I saw it pretty well and I put a good swing on it.”

The Blue Jays lived dangerously for the next few innings from there.

Guerrero cleverly scooped a Biggio throw across the diamond to end the sixth before Phelps barely eked his way out of the seventh after an infield single by Sanchez, a bloop Clint Frazier single and a LeMahieu walk loaded the bases with one out. But Judge rolled over a 2-1 sinker on the inner edge right to Biggio, who started a clean 5-4-3 double play to escape the jam.

Rafael Dolis struck out a pair after a leadoff walk in the eighth while Jordan Romano did some serious tight-rope walking in the ninth after a leadoff walk by Sanchez and two stolen bases by pinch-runner Tauchman.

He took off on LeMahieu’s soft chopper to third and Biggio, who took extra groundballs with infield coach Luis Rivera at 8:30 a.m. every day at camp, fielded it clean and made a perfect throw to Jansen, who had plenty of time to cut off Tauchman’s path to the plate.

“That was just awesome,” said Merryweather. “You’re on the edge of your seat watching our guys, hoping that they get out of those jams and it just fires you up more. Our bullpen, we’re a tight-knit group and you guys see how well everyone gets along down there. We’re having a lot of fun and I’m just excited for the rest of the year with those guys.”

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Montoyo gave both Phelps and Romano some early rope, choosing to show confidence in them to work out of trouble. He was rewarded both times.

“I was laughing because I love the game and that was a great game,” said Montoyo. “I was actually having fun there because we were in the game at that point. We just faced one of the best pitchers in baseball and we’re still in the game and I trust all my relievers. Every inning against the Yankees is high leverage because they’re all good hitters, it’s a good lineup. They all did a good job.”

In part thanks to some help from their friends, in a display of focus on the little things that needs to become the rule and not an exception for the Blue Jays to succeed in 2021.

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