TORONTO — They came for the opportunity to boo the former manager turned villain; they got a great ballgame.
Although the home side lost, falling 6-4 to the Boston Red Sox, the 45,328 that bought tickets certainly got their money’s worth, watching a wildly-entertaining, back-and-forth fight between two evenly-matched opponents throwing haymakers.
“We haven’t put it all together yet; too many mistakes tonight,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “One thing I know about this group is they’ll show up ready to play tomorrow.”
Mike Napoli did most of the damage for the visitors, crushing a two-run homer in the fifth and hitting a sharp ground ball in the eighth that drove in the go-ahead run. Will Middlebrooks added an insurance run in the top of the ninth with a solo shot off Toronto reliever Jeremy Jeffress.
Jose Reyes starred for the Blue Jays, going 4-for-5 with a game-tying homer in the seventh inning and energizing one of the liveliest crowds the Rogers Centre has seen in quite some time.
“They were there for us—they had a lot of energy. But we let them down,” a dejected Reyes said after the game. “I know I had a good game, but we lost. We’re here to win. So I feel like I didn’t do anything out there.”
Blue Jays starter Josh Johnson—acquired along with Reyes in the mega-deal with the Miami Marlins in November—lasted six innings, allowing nine hits and three earned runs. He struck out six, ramping his fastball up to the mid-90’s and earning several big whiffs from Boston batters with his deceptive curveball.
But while those two parts of the franchise-altering trade performed well, another had a night to forget. Second baseman Emilio Bonifacio struck out four times and committed three errors at second base. His back-to-back errors in the fourth inning were especially damaging as the Red Sox pushed across a run immediately thereafter.
“Boni had a tough night out there,” Gibbons said. “But he’ll be fine. One thing about him, he shows up to play every day. So he’ll get through that.”
The early-season game was meaningful for reasons both literal and abstract. It was Toronto’s first divisional matchup of the season and, as Gibbons pointed out before the game, a key opportunity to get a leg-up in what will surely be a tightly-contested AL East.
Of course, it was also the return of John Farrell, who managed the team for two seasons before defecting to Boston, much to the chagrin of a long-tortured fan base.
The Rogers Centre was emotionally charged for Farrell’s return as those in attendance vociferously booed the 50-year-old whenever he left the dugout. The boos were loud when he delivered the lineup card before the game—tipping his cap to the crowd for good measure—but downright deafening when he emerged in the sixth inning to lift his starter Felix Doubront from the contest.
“That was a first for me,” Johnson said of the atmosphere. “It was awesome. Hopefully it’ll be like that every night. It was fun to be out there.”
THE BATS: Reyes, brought to Toronto in the offseason to be an offensive catalyst, had his best night of the season so far, clubbing a single and two doubles in his first three at-bats before his game-tying homer in seventh sent the Rogers Centre into a frenzy.
Reyes and the rest of the Blue Jays roughed up Doubront, scattering nine hits through the first six innings, but struggled to take advantage with runners in scoring position, going 0-for-10 on the night.
Edwin Encarnacion struck out twice with men on base to end the third and fifth innings. In the sixth, after J.P. Arencibia led off with a double, Rajai Davis failed to get a sacrifice bunt to stay fair and promptly struck out on a foul tip. Colby Rasmus followed with a strike out of his own before Adam Lind—pinch-hitting for Mark DeRosa—flew out to deep right field.
DeRosa celebrated the three-year anniversary of his last home run by crushing a Doubront fastball over the wall in deep right-centre field in the fifth inning. DeRosa’s last long ball came on April 5, 2010 when he went deep against Houston Astros reliever Tim Byrdak.
THE ARMS: Johnson was alternately dominant and hittable throughout the night. He surrendered a walk and a single to open the game, but ploughed through the next three batters with ease. He blew a 95 mph fastball by Napoli for a strikeout and got Jarrod Saltalamacchia to chase a filthy breaking ball to get out of the inning.
“I found a way to get some outs in key situations,” Johnson said. “But still, I’ve got to be more efficient with my pitches and get deeper into the game. “
The Red Sox strung three hits together to score a run in the second and got a clutch single from pinch-hitter Pedro Ciriaco in the fourth for another. Johnson should have been out of that inning unscathed, but Bonifacio showed his inexperience fielding at second base as he committed two straight errors on routine groundballs.
The Red Sox didn’t make solid contact on any of Johnson’s offerings until Napoli’s two-run homer in the fifth. Up until that point they had put together just six singles. Ciriaco stung Johnson with a leadoff double in the sixth, but the 6-foot-7 righty stranded him, getting Napoli to watch a bending curveball fall into the zone for strike three to end the inning.
“I thought Josh was great,” Gibbons said. “There’s no question that a couple errors cost him a lot of pitches. But shoot, I thought he did a heck of a job.”
Brett Cecil relieved Johnson in the seventh and just nine pitches later had runners on second and third with none out. But he struck out the next three batters in a row—all swinging—to escape the jam. The 26-year-old seems to have rediscovered his velocity, which had been mysteriously declining for two years. His fastball was repeatedly clocked at 94 mph.
THE PLATOON: Gibbons said Friday evening that he plans to use designated hitter Adam Lind and fourth outfielder Rajai Davis as a platoon, starting Davis against left-handed pitchers and Lind against right-handers.
Whether the starter stays in the game or is lifted for a late-game matchup is a decision Gibbons has chosen to approach on a situation-by-situation basis.
If, say, Lind started but came up against a tough left-hander late in a tie ballgame Gibbons would likely bring in Davis. But if the opposition has a string of right-handed set-up men and closers in the bullpen, Gibbons may leave Lind in.
“It depends on the guys on base and what the score is and whether we want [Lind] in there late in the game against their closer or something,” Gibbons said. “If they’re bringing a left-hander in, [Lind] might face him depending on what’s happening with the game.”
Statistically, the platoon makes a great deal of sense. In his career, Davis has batted .290 against left-handed pitchers and .260 against right-handers. Lind’s splits are nearly the complete opposite; he’s hit .220 against left-handers and .280 against right-handers. But depending on injuries and players needing rest, Gibbons may still mix-and-match when he needs too.
“It’s not a dead set thing,” Gibbons said. “But early on against [left-handed] starters, you’ll see more of Rajai.”
THE OTHER GREAT RETURN: Lost in the hysteria surrounding Farrell’s much-anticipated return was the pseudo homecoming of another former Blue Jays coach, Brian Butterfield. The Maine native and infield guru spent ten years with the Blue Jays organization, serving two stints as third base coach and a brief spell as bench coach during Cito Gaston’s second go-round as Blue Jays manager.
Although he admitted to not venturing too far from the ballpark when he worked in Toronto, Butterfield has fond memories of his time north of the border. “It’s a great city—great people,” Butterfield said. “I met some of the finest people I’ve ever met in Toronto. “
Butterfield expressed interest in the vacant Blue Jays managerial position this past offseason but was passed over for the job. Before the Blue Jays chose to bring back Gibbons, Farrell offered Butterfield a gig in Boston as his third base coach—one Butterfield felt he couldn’t turn down. “As a coach you aren’t afforded the luxury of spending a lot of time weighing your options,” Butterfield said, before a large throng of Toronto media. “If you end up waiting too long and they pull the trigger on a move, I could find myself in A-Ball riding the busses again.”
Butterfield still wants to manage someday and is hopeful an organization will give him the opportunity. But he has no qualms with the direction the Blue Jays chose to go in with their vacancy. “They hired a great man to manage this club—I think it was a great choice,” said Butterfield, who coached under Gibbons during his first stint as Blue Jays manager. “They hired the right guy. I’m glad he got it.”
WHERE THINGS STAND: The Blue Jays (1-3) send fifth-starter J.A. Happ to the mound Saturday afternoon for the first day game of the season against the Red Sox (3-1). Happ had a great spring training and edged out last year’s ace Ricky Romero for the final spot on the pitching staff. The Red Sox will answer with John Lackey making his first start after sitting out the entire 2012 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Blue Jays had Lackey’s number when they last saw him in 2011, scoring 22 runs in 20.1 innings across four starts and hitting .337 against the right-hander.