DUNEDIN, Fla. – On the eve of their Grapefruit League opener, the Toronto Blue Jays figured a little game action might not be a bad idea, so the squad was split into two equal parts and off they went for a 4.5 inning friendly – Blue team versus Blue team.
Unsurprisingly the Blue team won, sneaking by the Blue team 1-0.
The winning team was the one that had five projected Opening Day starters in the lineup (Edwin Encarnacion, Ryan Goins, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus and Jose Reyes), as opposed to the one that had the other four (Jose Bautista, Melky Cabrera, Adam Lind and Dioner Navarro).
It was a crisp, well-pitched game, with the exception of the top of the second inning, in which top pitching prospect Aaron Sanchez gave up bullet after bullet.
Sanchez, a 21-year-old hard-throwing righty who has yet to pitch above A-ball, spent most of his 18-pitch frame ducking for cover. Lawrie led off with a hard line single to right field. Dan Johnson, Kevin Pillar, Erik Kratz and Maicer Izturis each followed with a rocket right back up the middle. Pillar’s was caught by Anthony Gose in centre; the other three went for singles. Izturis scored Lawrie with the game’s only run. Kenny Wilson was next, and the speedy young outfielder likely destined to be Sanchez’s teammate at double-A New Hampshire bounced into a first-pitch double play to end the inning.
Among the highlights from the offensive side were Gose’s drag-bunt single leading off the game. He pushed an 0-1 pitch beautifully past the mound towards second base and beat it out easily. Later in the inning, though, Gose was picked off at second base by Drew Hutchison.
New catcher Navarro lined a single to right in his first at-bat, then took a Tomokazu Ohka knuckleball to the wall in left field his second time up – Kevin Pillar made an outstanding catch against the fence to rob him of extra bases.
Andy Burns had the game’s loudest hit. The 23-year-old third baseman, who split last season between high-A Dunedin and New Hampshire, smoked a triple to dead centre off lefty Rob Rasmussen. It was a shot that Gose couldn’t run down, and it short-hopped the wall.
The pitchers were ahead of the hitters, as is generally the case this early in spring, and a few things stood out to me.
Hutchison looked just as good as he did before his elbow ligament snapped in June 2012, getting two ground balls after the Gose bunt single and walking Bautista on a 3-2 fastball that just missed outside. The pitch before that one opened some eyes – a gorgeous 3-1 change-up, knee-high on the outside black. Hutchison did a nice job fielding a comebacker, as did recent waiver pickup Liam Hendriks, who started a second-inning ending 1-6-3 double play with his.
Sean Nolin, an outside challenger for a rotation spot but a guy the Blue Jays certainly expect to contribute in the future, got four ground balls and a pop-up – two of the grounders squirted through into left field for singles.
Marcus Stroman started for the losing Blue team but came out pounding the strike zone. The diminutive righty (height doesn’t measure heart) got ahead of Reyes 0-2 before getting him to ground harmlessly to second and struck out Goins before issuing a five-pitch walk to Encarnacion – the only blemish on his record. Rasmus was next, and grounded to second as well.
Deck McGuire, Jordan Walden and Ohka each pitched a perfect inning – though Ohka had to face neither Bautista nor Lind, the two sluggers choosing not to step in against the flutterballer.
Munenori Kawasaki, the only player in the entire game to be applauded as he came to the plate, got some time in left field and manager John Gibbons said we will see him there occasionally this spring. The competition for the bench appears to be pretty wide open, so the more Kawasaki can do, the better his chance to make the team. Gibbons has gone on record many times saying that the team just seems to play better when he’s around, which offers even more incentive to keep him.
The Jays’ Grapefruit League opener is Wednesday in Clearwater. The Phillies ballpark is a 10-minute drive from the Blue Jays’, so it’s not a normal road game. The Jays are bringing all their regulars to the game, highly unusual for a road tilt, though not so much with these two teams. J.A. Happ will start and is expected to throw two innings. He will be followed by Todd Redmond and Kyle Drabek. You can hear the game live – and free! – through the mlb.com audio package.