ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Unlikely home runs. Weird replay reviews. Kevin Pillar heroics. Shutdown relief. And a whole lot more.
Game 2 of the 2016 season had a dash of everything for the Toronto Blue Jays, who rode homers from Josh Thole, Michael Saunders and Josh Donaldson plus some strong work from their new-look bullpen in support of R.A. Dickey to a 5-3 victory Monday over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Prime takeaways from this one centred around how much flexibility and depth the presence of Jesse Chavez ahead of the big three of Brett Cecil, Drew Storen and Roberto Osuna gives manager John Gibbons; Dickey winning his first start of the season for the first time in four tries with the Blue Jays; Thole providing a dash of power to go with his yeomen’s work behind the plate; and Saunders looking strong in the box against a southpaw while connecting for his first homer with the Blue Jays.
Oh, Pillar is still ridiculous chasing down balls, too.
“You’ve got to play with no fear out there. As soon as you have a moment of fear, you don’t make a play like that,” the centre-fielder said after he crashed forehead first into the wall in left-centre robbing Steve Pearce of extra-bases in the seventh. “We want our pitchers to feel comfortable pounding the zone and for us to go out there and make plays for them. The moment we have fear out there, then we’re not doing our jobs. I’m not afraid of anything out there.”
The Blue Jays should feel similarly emboldened by the manner in which they won Monday, given that it was by the same score as Sunday’s victory but nowhere near as tidy or straightforward, and being able to win in a multitude of fashions is what leads to the post-season.
Dickey fought through a release point he described as “very erratic,” and Thole was left lunging for balls sailing wide and dropping to block pitches in the dirt. Still, the knuckleballer managed to work out of jams in the first and fifth while allowing only one run, and found the zone just enough with his harder knuckler to get the ball to the ‘pen with a lead.
“I needed one that I could trust for a strike and usually that’s the one that’s a little bit harder,” said Dickey, who allowed three runs on six hits and a walk in five innings. “I feel like at this point in the season in the past I’ve fought hard to get to those higher velocities and today I didn’t really have to do that as much. I was able to climb there into 77-80 mph range pretty consistently. It was a good day as far as that was concerned, but I pitched just well enough not to get beat. I wouldn’t consider this a good start for me, I expect better from myself.”
Dickey might have gone longer had Desmond Jennings not opened the sixth with a cheapie single that got stuck in the webbing of Troy Tulowitzki’s glove just long enough for him to beat the throw.
With Steven Souza and Kevin Kiermaier, the two hitters who wore out Dickey, looming, Gibbons went to Chavez, who allowed a walk and an RBI single to Kiermaier before striking out Curt Casali and Logan Forsythe to end the frame.
With another weapon able to handle the sixth, Gibbons then followed with Cecil, Storen and Osuna as the lockdown back end of the bullpen delivered to plan.
“They were dynamite,” said Dickey. “One of the things we have this year is, from the start, guys you can trust down there and Gibby went to them.”
Counting on power from Thole is far less to plan, but he answered Souza’s solo shot in the second with his own solo drive in the third, his first home run since Aug. 21, 2013. And when a fan reached over the rails in right-centre field at Tropicana Field to snare Thole’s drive, it brought back memories of Mike Moustakas’s disputed homer into the glove of fan Caleb Humphreys in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
Thole’s shot was initially called a fan-interference double but Gibbons asked for an umpire’s review and replay officials determined that the ball would have left regardless.
He then completed his circling of the bases to make it a 1-1 game.
“Any time I hit a homer I run it fast because I don’t know what to do, I don’t have a pace,” quipped Thole, who spent the off-season reworking his swing to generate more pop. “Anytime you get the monkey off your back and you see it all translate is important. You can sit and work all off-season and start the season 0-for-20, constantly second-guessing yourself.”
Teased Pillar: “Beast mode. It’s the new JT Money.”
There was more bizarreness in the fourth, after back-to-back singles by Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and a sacrifice fly by Tulowitzki opened up a 2-1 lead. Chris Colabello followed with a fly ball down the right-field line that Souza appeared to catch as he entered foul territory before it popped out of his glove.
The play was ruled a fair ball with no catch, prompting the Rays to challenge that it was a catch and the Blue Jays to challenge that it was a foul ball. Confusion reigned. After five minutes three seconds, replay officials determined Souza made the catch and dropped the ball on the transfer, rendering the Blue Jays challenge moot.
Once the gong show came to an end, Saunders pummelled a 2-1 cutter over the wall in centre field, just past an outstretched Kiermaier, for a 4-1 Blue Jays lead.
Unusually, both homers came from left-handed hitters against the left-handed Drew Smyly – “I can’t give up two home runs to two different lefties in that lineup,” he said – but Donaldson restored some order in the fifth when he ripped a 3-1 changeup over the wall in left.
Pillar went all Superman for the first time this season in the seventh when he chased down Pearce’s drive to left-centre field on the warning track and at full momentum slid into the wall. He appeared to be shaken up but quickly took Saunders’ hand up. Blue Jays fans at Tropicana Field stood and cheered when Pillar returned to the dugout at the inning’s end, while teammates greeted him with high-fives.
“I knew the ball was in there. If it hits the glove, it’s in there. It’s auto-catch,” Pillar joked. “Athleticism and body awareness took over and I was able to tuck my head just in the right time. I’m happy to be alive.”
So too are the Blue Jays, who with a win Tuesday or Wednesday, will take a series from the Rays for just the fourth time in 26 visits to Tropicana Field.