TORONTO – Returning to the field on an unprecedented opening day provided the Toronto Blue Jays with some hard-earned reward Friday night, after months of acrobatics around COVID-19, widespread shutdowns, acrimonious labour talks and a troubled search for a place to call home.
A 6-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, with newly signed ace Hyun-Jin Ryu delivering 4.2 solid innings and Cavan Biggio serving as the catalyst for a three-run fourth before a three-run homer in the fifth, capped a wild-day which started with Buffalo’s Sahlen Field becoming their landing spot.
While a mad scramble to ready their temporary home-field looms, perhaps in time for the July 31 start to a series against the Philadelphia Phillies — but more likely the Aug. 11 opener of a five-game home stand versus the Miami Marlins — things came together nicely at Tropicana Field.
“This whole year has been crazy but it’s been especially crazy for our team, not being able to find a home, being turned away from Toronto, from Pittsburgh and Baltimore and ultimately landing at a triple-A field,” said Biggio. “I think our team is playing with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We were tired of it all and ready to play. Even if it’s in a triple-A ballpark, we’re still going to play with a chip on our shoulder and have some fun with it.”
Ryu, signed for $80-million over four years during the off-season, traded zeroes with Charlie Morton through the first three innings and then watched as Biggio bunted his way aboard the fourth, followed by a Vladimir Guerrero Jr., single and Travis Shaw walk.
A Randal Grichuk single pushed across their first run of the season before sacrifice flies by Rowdy Tellez and Teoscar Hernandez plated two more.
After a Mike Brosseau RBI double in the bottom half, Biggio followed singles by Danny Jansen and Bo Bichette by turning on a 91.5 m.p.h. fastball left middle up and hooked it over the right-field wall.
Ryu didn’t survive the bottom half, surrendering a two-run homer to Yoshi Tsutsugo, the Japanese slugger whom the Blue Jays had some interest in over the winter.
“It was a difficult game overall,” Ryu said through interpreter Bryan Lee. “To be honest it was a bit nerve-wracking being with a new team in a new environment and what was going on. My command wasn’t as sharp as I would have liked. Moving forward I definitely need to have better command to have better games.
“I felt like I was floating in air, maybe because of the nerves of pitching in the first game. My balance started to go off, so it wasn’t as on it would normally would be.
Manager Charlie Montoyo proceeded to roll out his slate of power-armed leverage set-up men, with Canadian Jordan Romano, recording the final out of the fifth two more outs in the sixth, and Anthony Bass, with four outs, delivering to script.
Rafael Dolis, the former Hanshin Tigers closer signed as a free-agent, survived a nervous eighth that started with a Bichette error, leaving the bases loaded by dotting 94.2 m.p.h. fastball on the low outside corner to catch Hunter Renfroe looking.
Closer Ken Giles then locked things down in the ninth inning.
“I knew the game was going to be on the line if Ryu got in trouble, so I knew I wanted Romano in that situation,” Montoyo said of how he lined up his relievers. “But Dolis can do it, Bass can do it, Romano can pitched the eighth – I can do it the other way around.
“But I felt like Romano was the right guy for the switch and it doesn’t matter if they pinch-hit, I know he can get them both out, so that’s why I got him in there. He’s doing really good.
The win against the nemesis Rays, a favourite to secure at least a post-season berth if not the American League East crown, will buoy the confidence of a young roster that has much higher expectations than is projected for them.
Guerrero looked at ease playing first base, Travis Shaw handled third without issue and everyone in the lineup save for Tellez had at least one hit. All will be counted on heavily during a 60-game season ripe for small-sample-size randomness.
The Rays were their usual creative selves, deploying a four-man outfield and a shifted three-man infield against Biggio during a strikeout in the first, but he gamed them with a clever slap-bunt to the first-base side in the fourth.
“They had done that to me in the past and last year I bunted and got a double out of it, so with a right-hander on the mound this time, I was just trying to bunt it at the second baseman as hard as I could,” said Biggio. “The first baseman cut it off but I was able to force a bad throw to the pitcher and I could beat him (to the bag).
“When the field opens up like that and you can practice your bunting, especially with a long inning on the field before that, I just wanted to give Ryu a little bit of a rest and instead of taking a pitch there, I thought I’d go with the bunt. I was looking for a pitch and got a good one to do it on.”
Ryu struck out four in 4.2 innings of work but also walked three and allowed four hits.
“Honestly, I feel like I was a weak link in today’s game,” said Ryu. “As long as I pick up my pace and if everyone else does what they did today, I think we’ll be fine moving forward.”
Among the new faces in the Blue Jays dugout was Dante Bichette, Bo’s dad, who was hired as a major-league coach.