TORONTO – The typical home opener pomp and circumstance abounded Tuesday night, with extended pre-game introductions, a massive flag stretched across the outfield for O Canada, and a nifty little ceremonial first pitch from Tim Raines to Roberto Alomar, incoming Hall of Famer to current Cooperstowner.
A new banner celebrating the 2016 victories in the wild card and American League Division Series was hanging in the rafters. The Rogers Centre was jumping. Welcome back, baseball.
Still missing, however, is the Toronto Blue Jays offence, an increasingly worrying issue for which neither an off-day, nor a return home, nor a date with the gut-the-joint rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers could serve as a panacea. A 4-3 setback represented a fourth straight loss – not to mention a sixth straight home opener defeat – and a 1-6 mess now ranks as the worst opening to a season in franchise history.
Once again a lineup with the pedigree to be a difference-maker – even with Josh Donaldson sitting out as a precaution due to the tightness that developed in his right calf Sunday – was the prime culprit.
Yes, J.A. Happ wasn’t sharp in allowing four runs – including solo home runs to Keon Broxton in a two-run first and Domingo Santana in the fifth – but Kendrys Morales accounted for three of the Blue Jays’ five hits, with Troy Tulowitzki responsible for the other two, along with all three RBI.
The star shortstop has driven in nine of his team’s 23 runs, a stunning 39 per cent, with Morales behind him at six RBI, good for 26 per cent.
To dabble in understatement, that’s not a formula for winning.
"We’ve run into some good pitching, maybe haven’t had our best swings," said Tulowitzki. "It’s still early. I’ve talked to guys not only on our team but my friends around the league and you want to find that comfort level when you step into the box. And you want to find the comfort level of your cage work and I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
"Hopefully that will come quicker but sometimes it takes some time."
Donaldson’s hoped-for return Wednesday, when Marcus Stroman takes on Chase Anderson, should help, but Blue Jays hitters must find their way around the fastball in, slider away combo opposing pitchers have been largely ramming down their throats.
Wily Peralta – the Brewers starter demoted to triple-A after getting blasted for a 6.68 ERA in his first 13 starts last year, only to return to deliver a 2.92 ERA in his final 10 starts – did plenty of that Tuesday.
The right-hander pitched off a fastball that averaged 96 mph and topped out at 98, dropping in his slider to great effect, with the occasional change mixed in. That was enough to control all but Morales and Tulowitzki, who doubled home runs in the first and fifth and added a sacrifice fly in the third.
There was simply no support behind them, as the 5-9 hitters went a combined 0-for-16 with three walks before Donaldson pinch-hit for Ryan Goins in the ninth, striking out against Neftali Feliz, who closed things out for his second save.
"You can’t be in between, you’ve got to be on one or the other," said Blue Jays hitting coach Brook Jacoby. "The bullpen these guys have over there, you’ve got to be on the fastball. Some of them are in between, absolutely. It’s committing to your plan, it’s not wavering on what you’re looking for, basically.
"We’ve wavered, no doubt. We’ve got to commit to our plan and stay with it."
John Gibbons managed his bullpen like someone expecting a comeback, running through primary set-up men Joe Smith, Joe Biagini and Jason Grilli from innings six through eight, with the just-activated Roberto Osuna handling the ninth.
Typically, a team’s A relievers are only used to protect a lead or a tie while the secondary arms try to keep things tight when down.
"We expected to come back," said Gibbons. "We needed this game, we wanted this game and everybody coming off the off-day was pretty well rested. A couple of them needed an inning, anyway. We approached it that way, as if it was at least a tie game."
Osuna allowed a hit and collected a strikeout during a clean ninth, but perhaps more importantly picked up some velocity from the spring outings which helped land him on the DL. His fastball averaged 95 mph and topped out at 96.8, and got two swinging strikes out of seven sliders.
"I felt much better, I felt my breaking ball was good, too," said Osuna. "I feel pretty good, I’m really happy with the inning, so keep working and hopefully I can get better."
Still, there was no happy ending for the American League leaders in attendance last year at 3,392,099. They picked up right where they left off on that front with a crowd of 48,456 providing the year’s first sellout, part of the roughly 2.5 million tickets already sold for 2017.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes progress continues on the development of concepts for a stadium renovation plan that should be ready for internal review by mid-season, with something to show fans between then and the campaign’s end.
President and CEO Mark Shapiro and staff met with design firm Gensler last week, and have another meeting scheduled for Wednesday where rough ideas are being discussed based on research the Blue Jays have done with their fan base and on what’s happening at sports venues elsewhere.
"Then it’s taking those two things – our fan research and the trends analysis – and how can we apply those to this stadium," said Shapiro. "At this point the focus is less on what’s possible and not possible, and a little more on these will be the themes and the concepts, and then how do we make decisions and prioritize, because we’re not going to be able to do everything."
Right now, the same goes for the Blue Jays on the field, as they are pitching and defending well enough to win, for the most part, but aren’t getting it done to the plate. Eventually things will turn, but the pressing question is how big of a hole will they be in by the time it does?
"We’re not a in a good spot, that’s for sure," said Happ. "We’re just not playing good enough to win games. We’re going to come in tomorrow, and the 154 days after that, and we’re going to try to change that. Unfortunately, that means we’re going to have to put a couple real good weeks together to get back to even. We know we can do that. But we’d like to get it done sooner than later."