BALTIMORE – Marco Estrada closed out his first career opening day assignment by retiring the final 10 batters he faced and allowing only two runs over six strong innings, but it was the way he started his first start of 2017 that bugged him afterwards.
“That fourth, fifth and sixth innings I felt much better, I felt like myself out there, kind of slowed things down and stopped trying to do too much,” the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander says of his work in Monday’s 3-2, 11-inning loss to the Baltimore Orioles. “My change-up started coming out much better, threw a lot more fastballs, also, and when you’re locating a fastball, it makes it a little easier. … I got things going but just a little too late.
“I’ve got to get it going a little sooner, I know I’ve had issues with it in the past, so I’ve got to figure it out.”
Estrada had to work around a pair of baserunners in the first, another in the second (although that one wasn’t his fault as Kevin Pillar appeared to lose Welington Castillo’s lazy fly in the sky) and the first two batters reaching in the third, leading to the pair of runs.
As Estrada mentioned, he has at times had issues out of the gate, posting a 4.18 first inning ERA in 2015, compared to an overall mark of 3.13, and posted a 3.72 in his opening frames last year, against a total of 3.48.
“It’s physical,” Estrada says, rather than mental. “The more pitches I throw, the better I feel and the good thing is I felt great, I felt like I could have gone back out. But it’s by far the most pitches I’ve thrown since last year, basically, so they didn’t want me to go back out there for another one, which I understand.”
Estrada finished the outing at 89 pitches and in a good sign for the 33-year-old, his fastball averaged 90.3 m.p.h. and topped out at 92.1, according to data on brooksbaseball.net, an uptick from the 88.88 he averaged in 2016, when he pitched through back issues much of the year.
TULO’S TEAM FOCUS
Troy Tulowitzki’s second opening day with the Blue Jays was the 11th of his career, and over the years he’s learned to better manage both the excitement of the curtain-raiser, and the expectations that come in any given season.
“Man, it’s a game that’s crazy, you never know what’s going to happen,” he says. “A team can get off to a great start and you’ve got to maintain that or you can get off to a bad start and you realize it’s a long season. The same goes for individual stats or whatever you’re trying to accomplish. When things don’t go as planned, that’s when the mentally strong know how to persevere through tough times.”
To that end, a point Tulowitzki stresses is being there for his fellow Blue Jays.
“For me, the most important thing is being the best teammate I can be, focusing on winning,” he says. “If you come to the field every day and those are your main focuses, the other guys realize that and it makes them better players as well because they understand that’s what this is all about. It’s not about yourself, it’s about the team and winning and ultimately we’re trying to make each other better and build something special here. Individually, you don’t really get that done.”
His vision for being a good teammate is a simple one.
“All of us at some point this year are going to be going through tough times. Be there for them,” Tulowitzki explains. “I can see when a guy in the corner has his head down, struggling, people are wondering if he’s coming or going, and I can go there and give him some words of encouragement and at the same time, if I have friends that care deeply about me when I’m at that point, they’re going to do the same thing. That’s a constant job in this game.”
FIRST OPENING DAYS
The first opening day in the big leagues is a considerable milestone for players, even for those who have already made their debuts in the majors like Blue Jays relievers Ryan Tepera and Dominic Leone, who both found themselves doing a lot of reflecting Monday.
“The support I have back home from my friends and family, especially my parents and sister – it’s a dream come true, it really is,” says Tepera. “You make your debut and then to be a part of opening day, especially after last year with what happened, I was so close last year, it just makes it more special.”
Tepera broke camp with the Blue Jays last year but was optioned to triple-A Buffalo the night before opening day when free agent lefty Franklin Morales was signed. This year he beat out the out-of-options Mike Bolsinger, with GM Ross Atkins saying the decision “came down to us feeling like Tep had really earned a spot in our bullpen.”
Leone was optioned last week but was recalled Sunday when Roberto Osuna was placed on the disabled list. He was packed for the trip to Buffalo on Sunday when director of player development Gil Kim, minor-league field co-ordinator Eric Wedge and pitching co-ordinator Jeff Ware approached him.
“I was at the complex, getting my work in, having a normal day and then all of a sudden they just told me, ‘Hey, you’re going back, congrats,’” says Leone. “It took me by surprise. It’s been flying by the seat of my pants ever since.”
How long he stays likely depends on when Osuna is ready, but he was grateful to experience opening day.
“Where to begin? Obviously my family, my wife back home, my parents, all my friends and everyone back home – it’s a special day,” Leone says. “In a perfect world everyone would be here that supported me throughout the years, but it’s a nice reflecting day, thinking back to where you came from, so it’s a real honour, a real pleasure to be here. Looking to make the most of it.”
What makes opening day so meaningful?
“There’s something about competing in spring training,” says Tepera. “I look at it as a tryout and to be one of the 25 best guys to make it out of spring training, that competition, all that goes on, it’s an unbelievable feeling.
“All spring training, just not knowing what was going on, waiting until the last second, it was stressful, for everybody, all the other guys that were in the same situation,” he adds. “It’s our life. Everybody has family they need to take care of and to wait for the last second like that was definitely stressful but I’m here and I’m happy.”
NOTABLE MINOR-LEAGUE ASSIGNMENTS
Impressive first-base prospect Rowdy Tellez will open the season at triple-A Buffalo as expected, with several of the Blue Jays’ other top prospects beginning the year at double-A New Hampshire.
Starters Sean-Reid Foley, Conner Greene, Jon Harris and Francisco Rios, reliever Tim Mayza, catcher Reese McGuire, shortstop Richard Urena and outfielders Anthony Alford and Harold Ramirez will all play for a loaded Fisher-Cats squad.
Top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., starts off at low-A Lansing along with shortstop Bo Bichette, middle infielder Yelstin Gudino, promising starter Justin Maese and outfielder J.B. Woodman.
Cuban free agent Lourdes Gurriel Jr., will play shortstop at advanced-A Dunedin, where the rotation will include 2016 first-rounder T.J. Zeuch, emerging righty Jordan Romano and lefties Ryan Borucki and Angel Perdomo.
The rotation at Buffalo features Mat Latos, Casey Lawrence, Brett Oberholtzer, Jarrett Grube and T.J. House, with Danny Barnes, Chris Smith, Matt Dermody and Chad Girodo in the bullpen.
The Blue Jays went both macro and micro in choosing to keep the out-of-options Ryan Goins over Melvin Upton Jr., a release that cost them $1 million.
“Really came down to versatility, handedness, years of control and thinking about not just what gives us the best chance to win tomorrow but sustained winning and ultimately the versatility of our lineup is something that's important to us,” general manager Ross Atkins explains. “Melvin has been great. He was great for us in our success last year but ultimately felt like his skillset was a little bit redundant for the makeup of our roster.”
Upton was used mainly as a right-handed bat in left field against left-handed pitchers last year when the Blue Jays were healthy, a role Steve Pearce is sure to handle this season. Barring injury, the pending free agent was unlikely to pick up at-bats elsewhere, while Goins offers premium defensive value at multiple positions and is under club control for three more years.
Chris Coghlan was signed to a minor-league deal after the Philadelphia Phillies released him and infielder/outfielder will open the season at triple-A Buffalo.
The contract includes some opt outs, the first one a month away.
“Our scouting reports were strong, he was someone that we were talking to over the course of the off-season,” says Ross Atkins. “When he became available, felt like he was a great depth option for us and glad to have him at triple-A.”
“This is one of those places where you never feel good that they have the last at-bat. They’re probably the top power-hitting team in the game, top to bottom, they can do that in a hurry.”
– Manager John Gibbons on playing the Orioles at Camden Yards.