DUNEDIN, Fla. – Brandon Morrow is trying to get back to where he’s been. Mark Buehrle is trying to stay where he’s at. Together, the two starting pitchers so vital to the Toronto Blue Jays saw their first game-action of the spring Friday, one pleased with his work, the other less so.
No biggie, the spring is long, and their two innings apiece in a 4-2 Grapefruit League win over the Pittsburgh Pirates are beginnings, not ends.
“I felt great,” said Morrow, who allowed a run on two hits in his 24 pitches, 14 of them strikes. “I felt on time with my delivery. I was most happy with the life that I had on my fastball, and I did what I wanted to.”
Buehrle, who threw 43 pitches and allowed a run on two hits with a walk and a strikeout, said: “First start, pretty much just go out there and get some pitches in, build up some arm strength. Wasn’t happy with how sharp I was. I wasn’t throwing too many sinkers for strikes, but again, first outing. Things are going to turn and get better as we go along.”
From a broader perspective, things already feel better than they did a year ago with the Blue Jays off to a 3-0 start in exhibition play, a mark significant only as a sign of the crisp fashion in which they’ve played.
Cracks in the club’s defensive foundation first appeared early last spring, but early indications suggest this group will be a tighter outfit. One example came in the fourth when Moises Sierra, bidding for the fourth outfielder’s spot, threw out Gaby Sanchez trying to tag up from second to third on a one-hopper from the right-field corner.
The club’s key offensive contributors have also hit the ground running, with Colby Rasmus knocking in a pair and Dioner Navarro adding an RBI double, another key contrast from a year ago. Perhaps it’s meaningless, but given the criticism of the way things went down last spring, the change is at minimum worth noting.
Still, few things carry the importance of how the pitchers fare, with Buehrle and Morrow in the spotlight on this day.
Morrow hit 95 mph several times and sat at an easy 91-92 in his two frames, a good indication that the radial nerve entrapment that truncated his 2013 season is long gone. Given that it was his first time facing big-league hitters in a game-setting since last May 28 versus Atlanta, the way he was "popping it pretty good" in the words of manager John Gibbons offers some tangible proof that all is fine.
Not that the right-hander needed it.
"The further along I get, the less I worry about it," said Morrow. "When I did all of my bullpens in the fall I felt like I was able to put it out of my mind, hey, that was the plan. Dr. (James) Andrews set it out, he’s the foremost (authority) in the country about stuff like that.
"I haven’t been sore in that spot one day since I took the time off. I think it’s a good thing that I wasn’t nervous or anything like that."
There are no such lingering concerns about Buehrle, whose primary challenge this spring may very well be developing a rapport with Dioner Navarro, his third different starting catcher in three years. Unlike many pitchers, the veteran left-hander relies on his catcher to call the game but because of the quick pace he works at, backstops must adjust and be ready to put signs down quickly.
The relationship with J.P. Arencibia took a while to take shape last year, so the onus is on Navarro to try and fast-track that process.
"For me, it’s big," said Buehrle. "First thing I told him when we met, I said, ‘Listen, I don’t shake off, so I like the sign down and hope you’ve got a game plan back there, because I don’t really go over one, I don’t follow one, so I just kind of go off (the signs).’"
And their first game experience together?
"He was fine," said Buehrle.
Navarro said he’s up for the challenge and while Buehrle worked quickly Friday, "I actually think it’s going to be a lot faster."
"I think he was taking his time today," the catcher continued. "Don't get me wrong he was fast, but I've faced this guy for a long time for a lot of times, and he works a lot faster."
Buehrle jokes that he likes letting catchers call the game so that way he can blame them if things go wrong, but indeed he does rarely shake off the signs he gets behind the plate.
It’s something he’s done pretty much his whole career.
"Actually, I shook off A.J. Pierzynski when he was with the Twins in ’03 – we went over to Japan (on a Major League Baseball all-star tour)," he recalled. "I shook him off and got a line drive off my shoulder. I said see what happens when you shake off. I don’t think I’ve shaken since then."
The Blue Jays hope the only shaking they see when he’s on the mound in-season is from the heads of opponents, frustrated that they didn’t square up Buehrle’s hittable-looking offerings, or couldn’t catch up to Morrow’s high heat.
Notes: Beloved Blue Jays infielder Munenori Kawasaki went 2-for-2 with hits off both Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon plus a walk, a run and a stolen base. "I said this all last year, when he’s on the field, good things usually happen," said manager John Gibbons. "When he’s at-bat, he gives you a good at-bat, fundamentally, he’s a sound defensive player. On the bases, he’s got real good instincts. Just a good all-around player." … Blue Jays runners had their first two plays at the plate under the new collision rules. Kawasaki had to duck around Tony Sanchez to score on Rasmus’s single in the first. Sanchez ended up blocking the line because an errant throw took him there. Then in the eighth, a sliding Ricardo Nanita was tagged out by Carlos Paulino, who blocked the path to the plate once he caught the ball. Both were properly handled under the new regulations. "You look at that last one, he’s dead out right there and Nanita could have lowered the boom on him if he wanted to, because the ball beat him in plenty of time and he took away the plate (and he didn’t)," said Gibbons. "On the first one, that’s fair game. You’ve got to give the runner something to slide at, but if a throw takes you into the path of a runner, there’s nothing you can do about it, you go for that ball." ... Sergio Santos was scheduled to pitch Friday but was told to stay home because of a stomach bug. He's expected back Saturday and should make his spring debut March 4.