BALTIMORE – At the dawn of every new season, there’s a vision for how things will play out during the grind to come, before the best-laid plans of players and clubs are inevitably tested, if not altered, by life’s random twists of fate. That’s why no matter how much people like to think they what’s going to happen, they really don’t, which is the beauty of it all.
In that respect, part of the romance of opening day is that after a long winter of buildup and a spring training of anticipation, baseball’s return is the first chance to juxtapose those visions against an often cruel reality. It’s an end to projections and predictions and the start of the only measure that matters.
The Toronto Blue Jays see themselves as legitimate contenders for a third straight trip to the post-season and opened their 2017 adventure with a 3-2 loss in 11 innings to the Baltimore Orioles on a comfortable, 20 C Monday afternoon at Camden Yards. Just as their blueprint calls for, Marco Estrada delivered six strong innings and enjoyed some nice defence behind him – a Welington Castillo lazy fly to left-centre that fell in between Kevin Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera standing as an exception. But their offence wasn’t able to capitalize on the handful of opportunities it created, going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, before one hanging breaking ball spoiled it all.
That came in the 11th, when with two outs, Jason Grilli doubled up on the slider, Mark Trumbo turned on a hanger and roped it over the wall in left field, sending a crowd 45,667 home happy.
“I just left it fat, it obviously wasn’t a good one,” Grilli, likely to get the bulk of closing work with Roberto Osuna on the disabled list, said in a quiet Blue Jays clubhouse. “You make a mistake and you pay for it. This is the big-leagues, there are no more practice runs, this is for real and he did what he’s supposed to do with it.”
A walk-off homer in the 11th inning also ended things the last time the two American League East rivals met, on Edwin Encarnacion’s three-run drive off Ubaldo Jimenez while Zach Britton sat idle in the wild-card game last fall. Encarnacion is in Cleveland now and this time Buck Showalter went to his closer in a 2-2 game, riding him through both the ninth and 10th innings.
Grilli recorded the final out of the 10th and was nearly through the 11th when Trumbo got him.
“You just fear that one swing. Just like on the other side, they were waiting for one of our guys to pop one and it can turn the game. But Trumbo did it,” said manager John Gibbons. “I liked what I saw, I thought (Joe) Smith looked good, and I thought Grilli was throwing the ball fine, (Joe) Biagini, J.P. Howell came in and got the big out. They did their jobs.”
The rivalry picked up from the outset as the sellout crowd loudly booed Jose Bautista during the pre-game introductions, underlining GM Dan Duquette’s controversial off-season take that he couldn’t sign the outfielder because the team’s fans hated him. “We don’t like you,” a small group chanted at one point.
Bautista didn’t get to stick it to the Orioles at the plate, but he did in the field, as he cleverly fielded a Chris Davis drive off the right-field wall and threw the slugger out at second base in the third inning. Still a run scored on the single and Trumbo followed by dunking in a double just inside the right-field foul line to open up a 2-0 edge.
In the fifth, up 2-0 in the count with the bases loaded and one out, Bautista was left muttering to himself after popping up an inside fastball off the plate, but new addition Kendrys Morales picked him up with a walk that cut into the deficit.
Another new addition, Steve Pearce, singled and scored from first on Carrera’s double in the sixth to tie the game 2-2. Pearce, coming off elbow surgery, made his Blue Jays debut at first base with Carrera in left as Gibbons opted for more range in the outfield with Estrada on the mound. But Pearce will also plenty of action in left field with Justin Smoak at first base, based partly on a given day’s matchup.
“Personally, the arm feels good, it feels good to start off pretty good at the plate,” said Pearce, who had three hits. “But ultimately we got the loss so that kind of wipes everything out.”
Biagini picked up where he left off with 1.2 innings of strong relief, and new lefty Howell took over in the eighth after a two-out Manny Macahdo single and got Davis on a soft liner to left.
Tied 2-2 in the ninth, Showalter summoned Britton and after a pair of one-out singles he induced a 5-4-3 double play grounder from Bautista. In the bottom half, Bautista exacted some revenge when he made a diving catch on Joey Rickard’s sinking liner and then doubled off Castillo at first base, sending the game to extra innings.
Things might have opened in the top of 11th had Manny Machado not made a brilliant stab on a Devon Travis smash up the third-base line and relayed over to first for the out. Josh Donaldson followed with a base hit, one of three he had to go with a walk. Bautista proceeded to hit into a fielder’s choice to end the frame, and the Blue Jays didn’t find the ending they wanted.
“We’ve got a good team. Up and down the lineup, we’ve got guys that can hit,” said Pearce. “We’ve got a great bullpen, it’s one pitch that got away from them. I love when Grilli takes the hill, he’s a bulldog and I trust him every time he takes the hill. So I love what I see.”
His teammates feel similarly.
“This is the same cast,” said Grilli. “There’s a few new faces, but this is a good team, we know we’re good and I think that’s what you can expect from us.”
So the journey begins.