TORONTO – There is a tendency to put too much stock, good or bad, into what happens on opening day, a temptation inherent to a game filled with pomp, circumstance and sideshow that is at odds with the steady and even nature of an everyday sport.
A sample size of one is meaningless in baseball, but a new season draws out the natural desire to make judgments and draw conclusions after a winter of anticipation, even when the first game is all there is to evaluate.
That’s why the Toronto Blue Jays’ 4-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night before a sellout crowd of 48,857 isn’t any sort of indicator on general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s off-season makeover, just like a lopsided victory wouldn’t have signaled an imminent march to the post-season.
Without doubt the outcome was deflating, especially after an unprecedented buildup following November’s blockbuster with the Miami Marlins that netted Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio, and the subsequent moves to reel in Melky Cabrera and opening day starter R.A. Dickey.
And it certainly flattened out an audience that created an electric atmosphere during an entertaining opening, exploding during the pre-game introductions at the mention of every one of the new stars.
But on a night Dickey’s knuckleball dipped and danced without obeying the will of its unleasher early on, J.P. Arencibia struggled to contain the pitch, and a couple feet of difference on some hard hit balls would have changed everything, it’s worth filing many of the results under things to keep an eye on, and little more.
“Tonight was a real special night for me, sure because it was an opening night, but the welcome that I got from the fans was just borderline supernatural, it was pretty awesome,” said Dickey. “Deep down you want so badly to give them a great show, you want to entertain them, and you want to pitch a one-hitter and all that, but everybody that came tonight understands we have a pretty good ball club, the season is not won or lost on opening night.”
No, it’s not, yet Arencibia’s performance in particular came under a harsh gaze, as he missed Dickey’s first pitch of the night plus a couple of others, allowed three passed balls (two of which helped lead to a two-run Indians second) and couldn’t stop a wild pitch in trying to handle the toughest Dickey knuckler he’s encountered yet.
Over the past three seasons with the New York Mets, Dickey has in ascending order thrown 11, nine and four wild pitches, while his catchers have surrendered seven, 15, and 19 passed balls.
The learning curve is just beginning for Arencibia, who went from more of a straight up squat to one with his body twisted and right leg open after the third inning following a tip from Henry Blanco, who caught the knuckleballer in 2010.
“Henry was like, ‘Hey man, I see you more square than usual, try to open a bit more,’ and right away that inning I opened up and I was a lot more free,” explained Arencibia. “That could be part of … the excitement, you don’t think about things like that, you’re trying to concentrate and you creep, creep, creep to where you feel normal and then you notice.
“The next three innings I felt great with it and I think that made a big difference.”
That seemed to stabilize things, and with the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner due to start Sunday against Boston, Arencibia will likely be behind the plate again unless Blanco catches twice in the series with the Red Sox, or Arencibia plays in both Friday’s night game and Saturday’s day game.
Manager John Gibbons twice said Arencibia’s passed balls didn’t cost them the game, and one awkward night won’t be enough to pull the plug on their pairing, although their progress will be more closely watched now.
“J.P. is still learning and has great aptitude,” said Dickey. “I’m sure he’ll identify whatever it was that inhibited him tonight and fix it. … He’s going to be fine.”
Also garnering attention is Jose Bautista, who flipped his bat away and headed toward first on a 3-0 pitch he thought was a ball but Jeff Nelson called a strike, and later jawed at the home plate umpire after getting wrung up in the fifth.
He wasn’t the only one to dislike Nelson’s zone, but the chirping harkened back to some of the more troubling moments from last year’s club.
Still, some of those frustrations might have been eased had Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera not made a brilliant stab on Adam Lind’s screaming one-hopper with the bases loaded in the third, starting a double play that allowed one run to score but killed a rally.
That was the third straight inning Justin Masterson wiggled out of trouble, and Arencibia’s inning-ending strikeout started a run of 10 straight outs that he carried through six strong innings.
“That could have been a game-changer,” Gibbons said of the Lind drive.
The Blue Jays were within a run until the fifth, when Michael Bourn opened the frame with a single and Cabrera followed with a high-arching blast over the wall in right to make it 4-1. Dickey went six innings in all, allowing four runs, three earned, on five hits and four walks with four strikeouts.
“I had more movement tonight than all of spring training,” said Dickey. “It’s just the nature of some adrenaline and velocities were back up. The dome is nice to throw in. The release point was a struggle for me tonight a little bit because it was moving so much early.”
Impressive relief work came from Aaron Loup, Sergio Santos – who came on with one down and one on in the eighth, allowed a first pitch double to Carlos Santana and then struck out Mark Reynolds and Lonnie Chisenhall to end the threat – and Brett Cecil, but the Blue Jays offence could not rally.
Indians closer Chris Perez finished things off in the ninth, unlike opening day a year ago in Cleveland when he coughed up a 4-1 lead and the Blue Jays eventually won the longest season opener ever, 7-4 in 16 innings.
Everything felt right after that one, yet there was no omen of things to come in a season that eventually went very sideways in dramatic and ugly fashion. Who knows what’s in store this year, but there are no definitive indicators to be drawn one way or another out of this night.