Blue Jays wrap up solid spring training, but real test lies ahead

Russell Martin discussed what the experience was like playing in Montreal and how the Jays feel ahead of season.

MONTREAL – For a veteran team like the Toronto Blue Jays, the quieter your spring training, the better.

In that sense, the Blue Jays completed a successful spring Saturday with a 6-4 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in Montreal. It’s not the win itself that counts—at 12-18, the Blue Jays had the worst Grapefruit League record in the AL—but they’ll arrive in Baltimore for their season-opening series against the Orioles healthy. Considering that most of the Blue Jays’ primary contributors are over 30, that counts for something.

"We still feel we’re good enough to win it all," manager John Gibbons said. "We really like our team. We feel like it’s another team that can go into the post-season again and take another shot at it."

After six-plus weeks in Florida, the Blue Jays tuned up for the regular season in front of 52,202 fans at Olympic Stadium Saturday. Russell Martin, who spent much of his childhood in Montreal, was greeted with some particularly loud receptions whenever he stepped in to the batter’s box.

"It was a great weekend," he said. "A lot of good energy. Honouring Tim Raines was awesome. The team came out healthy, so that’s a good sign, too. And I managed to finally get a base hit in my last at-bat, so things seem like they’re on the right track."

The Blue Jays returned to the ALCS in 2016 thanks in large part to a starting rotation that led the league with a 3.64 ERA. The starting five will again determine how far the Blue Jays go—especially considering the substantial drop-off to their sixth and seventh starters, likely Mike Bolsinger and Mat Latos.

That’s part of the reason why Francisco Liriano’s dominant spring was so encouraging. The left-hander pitched 18 innings, allowing four runs and 10 hits. He walked just six and struck out 29. It’d be foolish to read too much into Grapefruit League stats, but that kind of success certainly isn’t a bad thing.

"He probably had the best spring training of anybody out there," said Gibbons, whose contract extension became official Saturday. "Really, really good. He’s healthy."

"He has great ability, and it looks like everything’s starting to fall into place for him," Martin added. "Hopefully it turns out (as) a good year for him."

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Marcus Stroman, who started Friday night’s game against the Pirates, looked equally dominant this spring, both with the Blue Jays and while pitching for Team USA at the World Baseball Classic. Considering that J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada also emerged from spring training unscathed, the lone lingering issue is the blister on Aaron Sanchez’s pitching hand, an issue the Blue Jays continue to describe as minor.

The position players appear similarly healthy, with Devon Travis slated to open the season as the team’s second baseman and leadoff hitter, Josh Donaldson fully recovered from the calf strain that sidelined him early in spring, and Steve Pearce throwing well enough to play left field and first base. Four weeks ago, all three were still recovering from injuries.

All that remains for the Blue Jays is finalizing their opening day roster, a process GM Ross Atkins says will take until Sunday’s noon ET deadline. Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera are poised to round out the bullpen, while Ryan Goins is among the candidates for the final bench spot (Melvin Upton Jr., who homered Saturday, will not open the season on the roster, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney).

This time of year teams would much rather tinker than worry about the health or production of core players, so the Blue Jays can call their spring a success regardless of how they finalize their roster. The real test begins Monday when, finally, the games will count.

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