Grange on Blue Jays: Early wins do matter

Toronto Blue Jays Jose Bautista (right) celebrates in front of Cleveland Indians catcher Carlos Santana after hitting a two run homer during first inning AL baseball action in Toronto on Thursday, April 4, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
April 5, 2013, 12:06 AM

If there’s one thing you have to know about these Toronto Blue Jays it’s this: what a bunch of truth twisters.

After spending the first nights of their opening series against the Cleveland Indians pretending that it was no big deal if they dropped a game or two, or hell, maybe even three — after all, there are dozens and dozens of the pesky things left to play — they contradicted themselves like a bunch of sports radio phone-in regulars after their 10-8, sweep avoiding win in Game 3 at Rogers Centre.

No one is supposed to panic in baseball until sometime in mid-September, apparently.

Long season, plenty of time, blah-blah-blah.

But if winning early was no big deal, if having a bunch of guys in a high-priced, offence-heavy lineup fail to do what they’re supposed to do — namely produce runs in bunches — why the smiles of relief after Thursday night’s unlikely nail-biter? Maybe going 0-2 and producing three runs wasn’t so much fun after all.

“I don’t care what level of baseball you’re at, that first (win) is the toughest one to get,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, sitting in the same seat from which he dismissed the Jays first two losses with a ‘that’s baseball’ wave of the hand. “Everyone wants to get off to a good start and it’s tough to come by.”

It was not how it was drawn up. Yes the Jays are supposed to be able to produce runs in bunches, and Thursday night they did, as they drilled five homers, none of them cheapies, off the bats off Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, J.P. Arencibia (who had two) and a monster shot from Colby Rasmus.

But no team is supposed to win a two-run squeaker when they put up a converted touchdown and field goal. Depth in the starting rotation is supposed to be the Jays essential advantage. Not too many teams — if any — can match Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson in the No. 3 and No. 4 slot in the rotation.

Buehrle was his typical fast-working self but the 34-year-old veteran also proved he can squander leads in the blink of an eye. He was up 3-1 in the third and surrendered two quick solo shots to erase that edge. It 6-3 when he took the ball in the sixth inning and with a win to be had he allowed the Indians to tie the game once more.

“The biggest thing I’m frustrated about is going out there after we just scored three runs, take a 6-3 lead, go out there and walk leadoff guy hit a guy and put yourself in a jam,” said Buehrle. “That’s unacceptable, I need to a better job.”

So not ideal, but a win’s a win and even though he was the source of most of the drama — or at least the need for it, Buehrle could acknowledge the benefits of not starting the most anticipated season in franchise history, arguably, 0-3 with John ‘Judas’ Farrell coming to town with the Boston Red Sox.

“Hopefully some people can step off the ledge a little bit,” said Buehrle. “It’s only three games. We know what we’re capable of.”

However, for those interested in reading too much into a single game, there were several interesting chapters to flip through.

Bautista is the undisputed top dog in the Blue Jays clubhouse on the strength of two-and-a-half seasons of unprecedented power production, but leading a club with pennant aspirations is a potentially different beast.

It was nice then, to see him answer the Tribe’s quick first inning run against Buehrle with a hard two-run home run — his second in as many nights — in the Jays half of the first. Similarly in the Jays half of the fifth it was Edwin Encarnacion getting his first homerun of the season, a three-run shot that could easily have been the game winner had Buehrle held the fort.

A lot is expected of Encarnacion, who is hitting fourth on the basis of his career-year in 2012 when he logged 42 home runs, nearly matching his total for his previous four seasons combined. A decent start will likely calm fears that it was a one-off when compared the fairly pedestrian production he managed in years past.

But perhaps the best signs were more subtle: a pretty double-play turned by Emilio Bonifacio at second base in the fifth inning to save a run and two more gems in the top of the eighth — a diving stop to prevent a run off a sharply hit ball by Michael Brantley and a fantastic get of a ripped grounder by the Tribes’ Carlos Santana well behind second base complimented by a laser throw off his back foot to end the inning with the bases loaded.

Suddenly second base doesn’t seem the question mark it did in the spring.

In the bottom of eighth Jose Reyes showed what speed and savvy base-running can do when he scored an insurance run from second on a fielders’ choice off the bat off Bautista, all while running through the stop sign put up by third-base coach Luis Rivera.

“As long as you’re safe, you know what I mean?” said Rivera.

When you win, it’s all good, and the Jays demonstrated in one night there are different ways to eliminate the donut on the W column.

And yes, even if it was game three, it mattered.

“It was a big game to win,” said Gibbons.

Truer words.

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