Blue Jays look to narrow gap between comfort and readiness as games loom

Shi Davidi and Arash Madani looked at the play of the Blue Jays in intrasquad action, with Vlad Guerrero Jr. making solid defensive plays at first base and Matt Shoemaker stretching to throw 93 pitches.

TORONTO – Back in the middle of March, just as the pandemic hit and spring training shut down indefinitely, Cavan Biggio felt like he was just starting to find his stride.

The first couple of weeks of camp are typically foundational for him, focused on getting his body into baseball shape for the looming 162-game grind. From then on, the fine-tuning begins, and the sophomore second baseman was finding comfort on the field, the feeling of being game-ready, when everyone was sent home indefinitely.

“That was certainly frustrating,” Biggio said Tuesday, before working a walk and starting a nifty double play in the Toronto Blue Jays’ most formal intrasquad game yet of summer camp, won 6-4 by Team Bo over Team Grich. “I know I’m certainly not the only player in that boat. But over the course of quarantining, we didn’t really know when it was going to (resume), so I was always prepared for it to be in a week.

“I continued to do my stuff. I continued to hit, throw, work out like I was going to go back in a week. I maintained it as much as possible and after a couple of days out here I’m starting to feel more comfortable.”

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The priority now for Biggio, along with the rest of his teammates, is to narrow the gap between comfort and game readiness as quickly as possible in this compressed lead-up to the 60-game sprint the Blue Jays open July 24 at the Tampa Bay Rays.

Given that, there are no reps to waste, which is why Tuesday’s five-inning intrasquad game – which featured home runs by Bo Bichette, Andy Burns and Anthony Alford and a terrific diving stab on a Rowdy Tellez smash by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at first – was followed by several rounds of live batting practice.

“It’s certainly not ideal and it’s something that we have to adapt to as baseball players,” Biggio said of the rushed lead-up to the season. “We’re used to such a routine, such a normal schedule on a yearly basis – spring training, exhibition games, regular season, you know what your timetable is. Going into this, we knew that there was going to be a lot of uncertainty scheduling-wise. The best thing that we could do is do as much as we can while we were waiting. So that’s the mindset that I took and I stayed ready. It’s been challenging a little bit. But it’s also been unique and kind of fun.”

While the preparations for the season have changed, the Blue Jays’ plans for Biggio defensively have not, as he expects to be used mainly at second base with occasional stints in the outfield. When those come he’s not sure, but “all three of those (outfield spots) have been put in my head,” he said, adding, “I’m prepared to play all three of them whenever.”

Biggio provided one of the defensive highlights of the night while shifted over to the shortstop side of the second base bag, ranging right to pick a Jordan Groshans hard grounder and flipping the ball to Santiago Espinal, who ran the ball to second for one out before tossing to first for two.

Guerrero, who the previous inning robbed Tellez with his dive, made a nice stretch to complete the twin-kill.

“That double play was sweet, that’s a big-league double play, that was fun to watch,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Espinal, every time I see him he’s always making plays, I like him a lot and of course Biggio, with the nice feed for that double play.”

Bichette ambushed the first pitch of the game from Jacob Waguespack and sent it over the wall in left field, while Burns and Alford went back-to-back in the third off Matt Shoemaker, who went 4 2/3 innings while throwing 93 pitches, 54 strikes. As that split would indicate, his command varied, and he struggled locating his fastball up in the zone.

Still, from a workload perspective, he drew what he needed from the evening, even if the efforts to add realism to the game with piped in crowd noise, music, the usual array of stadium sounds and familiar voice of PA announcer Tim Langton still were a far cry from the real thing.

“It’s better than nothing, for sure. It’s definitely odd. This whole thing is odd. I wish we had fans right now,” Shoemaker said. “But when you’re on the mound and you have that tunnel vision, that uber-focus, that’s the spot I like to find myself. Sometimes you drift, and you’re not focused and you might pick up on some of those things, but when I’m on the mound I try to stay as focused as possible. So honestly, I didn’t notice much of the crowd noise, or other things. In between innings I noticed, whether it was people’s walk-up music or the sounds of the game type-stuff.”

The oddities, of course, are everywhere — in the ballpark and in real life.

The Blue Jays, still without a regular-season home two weeks away from hosting the Washington Nationals on July 29, are being forced to adjust to all the changes, be it facemasks on coaches and some players, social distancing and a bevy of other health and safety protocols.

“I don’t know if I can pinpoint one certain thing,” Biggio said when asked about the biggest change he’s experienced. “Obviously staying in the hotel and not being allowed outside is definitely different. But it’s something that we all understand that we have to do and we don’t have a problem with it.

“When I come to the locker-room, when I come to the clubhouse, I do my normal things. I get here. I go to the weight room and get ready, hit, normal stuff I do on a regular basis. The only difference is that I’m doing some other precautions, whether it’s wearing a facemask, or it’s staying away and avoiding touching the coaches or whatnot. Little things like that. But in overall day aspects since getting to Toronto, it’s been as close to my routine as possible.”

Right now, that’s about the best any of us can hope to do.

SHORT HOPS: Normal baseball attrition is striking the Blue Jays as manager Charlie Montoyo revealed that third baseman Travis Shaw, who ran the bases Tuesday, is day-to-day with a sore groin, while righty Julian Merryweather suffered a left oblique strain and “probably” won’t be on the field for at least the next week. Chase Anderson (oblique) played catch at 90 feet. … Montoyo on his impressions of Guerrero at first: “He’s been working at first base since way back in spring training, on the back fields, and when (infield coach) Luis Rivera told me he looks really good, he’s got good hands so he’s going to be fine, you saw it right there. That was a big-league play he made in the hole. He feels really comfortable so that’s good to see.” … First-round pick Austin Martin took some ground balls at third base and that’s where the Blue Jays plan to have him work out, for now. … Blue Jays players set up their intrasquad teams via a draft, with the club’s big-league players putting some money on the line in the contests. “That was fun,” Montoyo said of the draft. “We wanted to get the guys competing because it’s tough to play each other all the time and that was one way to do it.”

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