Blue Jays spring takeaways: Venditte shines from left side

Gavin Floyd turned in a solid start for the Toronto Blue Jays, Justin Smoak hit a towering solo home run and the Blue Jays won10-8 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

BRADENTON, Fla. – There was no sign of Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin or Troy Tulowitzki, but you wouldn’t have known it from the ten-spot the Blue Jays hung on the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday afternoon.

The offence came in bunches, from a four-run rally in the second that started with two out and nobody on and didn’t include an extra-base hit, to three runs each in the sixth and seventh, featuring a double and a home run in each frame.

Here’s what stood out to me about the Blue Jays’ 10-8 win over the Buccos:

A FLOYD DEBUT FOR GAVIN: The Blue Jays gave Gavin Floyd a big-league contract earlier this year, hoping that he’ll be able to build off a strong September and be a helpful piece in either the rotation or the bullpen.  The veteran righty, who has broken his elbow twice in the last two seasons and only pitched in 21 major-league games since 2012, struggled through his Grapefruit League debut, despite allowing only one run on two hits over two innings and picking up the win.

Floyd faced five batters in the bottom of the first and went to a full count on four of them, starting out 3-0 on the first two.  The only hitter who didn’t make it to a 3-2 pitch was Michael Morse, who clubbed an RBI double down the right-field line on a 2-1 offering.

With his pitch count closing in on 30, Floyd came back out for the second inning and was around the plate a lot more, but he gave up two hard line drives. One was snared by Chris Colabello with a spectacular diving grab and the other went for a double as Junior Lake just missed making a great circus catch in right field.

It’s only the first outing of spring training, and Floyd will get many more chances and most certainly look a lot better, but it certainly wasn’t the best initial impression.

VENDITTE, VIDI, VICI: Ambidexter Pat Venditte may have more of a spotlight shone on him now with the news that Aaron Loup needs further evaluation for a forearm (read: elbow) issue, and he looked awfully good working the sixth inning exclusively as a left-hander.

Venditte faced switch-hitters Josh Bell (one of the Pirates’ top prospects) and Pedro Florimon (who has significant big-league time) and chose to work as a portsider against both, retiring Bell on a fly ball and Florimon on a grounder.  He then took care of the lefty-swinging Elias Diaz on a ground ball, as well.

The outs against the switch-hitters are significant, though the sample size is tiny, because the only time Venditte struggled in his rookie season last year with Oakland was when he didn’t have the platoon advantage.  Left-on-left, Venditte held opponents to a dazzling .116/.191/.256 mark.  Right-on-right, those numbers are a still-great .205/.295/.282.  But switch-hitters, against whom Venditte always threw left-handed, raked him for a .391/.444/.826 mark.

SAUNDERS SHINES: Michael Saunders’ Blue Jays career hasn’t really gotten off the ground yet, with only nine games played in an injury-wracked 2015 season, and it was almost over before it started if you believe the trade rumours of early last week.

Finally healthy and able to perform, Saunders had his best day as a Blue Jay on Thursday. He delivered a two-out, two-run hard line single to right field – left-on-left against Jon Niese – to cap the Blue Jays’ four-run second inning as part of a 1-for-3 day and later showed how he can contribute on the field.

In the bottom of the fourth, with the Blue Jays ahead 4-1 and a runner on first, Pirates’ catcher Elias Diaz hit an opposite-field dying quail that dropped just inside the left-field foul line.  Saunders got to it quickly and threw to second base, holding Diaz at first, instead of trying to make a hero throw and gun down Jordy Mercer on his way to third.

By eschewing the low-percentage play, one that we’ve seen many outfielders try to make in the past, Saunders kept the double play in order and, in fact, Willy Garcia bounced into a 6-4-3 twin killing in the following at-bat.

Minor-leaguer Andy Burns also showed his baseball brains in the bottom of the ninth, with the Blue Jays clinging to a two-run lead and men on first and second with nobody out.  Bell ripped a line drive to the right side that just kicked off the glove of a diving Rowdy Tellez at first base.  Burns came over to pick up the carom and, knowing that the runner on first had to hold up to make sure the line drive wouldn’t be caught, coolly took his time and threw to second for a force out. Again, the next batter hit into a double play, this one ending the game.

BARNEY & FRIENDS:  If we’ve learned anything in the early spring, it’s that you cannot stop Darwin Barney. You can only hope to contain him.

The light-hitting (.246/.294/.339 in 2091 big-league plate appearances) middle infielder went 3-for-3 with two doubles and five runs batted in on Tuesday and followed up that performance with two more hits in Thursday’s win – a two-out single to spark the four-run rally in the second and a loud double to left-centre in the sixth.

Barney, who is the Blue Jays’ likely utility infielder while Devon Travis recovers from off-season shoulder surgery, is 5-for-6 on the spring, and his hot bat is rubbing off on his replacements, as well.

Jio Mier took over for Barney at shortstop in Tuesday’s spring opener and singled in his only at-bat, and Burns replaced Barney at second on Thursday and went 2-for-2 with a double and a single.

So, not only is Barney hitting .833/.833/1.333 so far this spring, his spot in the line-up is batting .889/.889/1.333 overall. Impressive small sample size stuff.

The Blue Jays are back home on Friday afternoon, trying to continue their unbeaten run in the early spring. They’ll host the Orioles with J.A. Happ facing Baltimore’s Vance Worley.  Tulowitzki is expected to make his spring debut in the game, with Donaldson and Martin scheduled to play as well.  It’s the first televised game of the year – Buck Martinez and Joe Siddall will have the call on Sportsnet – and as always, you can hear the game live through audio, with Ben Nicholson-Smith joining me in the booth for the 1:00pm Eastern start.

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