DUNEDIN, Fla. – And on the eighth day of training camp for the Toronto Blue Jays, there was baseball.
Well, it was only an intrasquad game, one in which the umpires missed the first batter, the scoreboard operators didn’t get going until the second frame, and an inning was called with less than three outs because of pitch count.
But it certainly broke up the growing monotony following a week’s worth of workouts, and as a final prep before Aaron Sanchez starts Tuesday’s Grapefruit League opener against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates, the contest at least offered a hint that the real stuff is soon coming.
“You can’t hold fake runners or imaginary runners when you’re on the back fields, PFPs get old, so facing hitters, game-speed, anything can happen, guys get on, they steal, bunt plays, everything is in play,” said Mark Buehrle, who allowed a Jose Bautista infield single during his inning. “It’s good to get that going.”
There’s no arguing that, as under a hazy blue sky lightly spotted with clouds the first real visions of the 2015 Blue Jays came together, the Grey team beating the Blue team 1-0 on third-base prospect Mitch Nay’s solo shot to left-centre field off Juan Oramas in the fifth inning.
Russell Martin handled R.A. Dickey’s inning like an old pro, prompting manager John Gibbons to say the pairing “wasn’t even one of those things you noticed. That’s always a good sign.”
“When catchers are battling things, they’re real stiff, they’re jabbing at the ball and you can tell when a guy is battling his confidence,” Gibbons added later. “He was just sitting back, but he’s got as good of hands as anybody in baseball. That’s one of the reasons he’s here. It looked almost effortless.”
This was the fourth time the two have worked together, and before the game Martin and Dickey agreed that if the catcher calls knuckleball, the pitcher can adjust to fastball, not vice-versa.
“I know I’m not going to be as comfortable today as I will be in a couple of weeks after catching him more, but so far, I’ve been content with how I’ve handled him,” said Martin. “I kind of expected it to be tough, I kind of expected to botch a couple of balls out there but I’m not going to get frustrated. I’m going to try and stay positive and then just get more comfortable as we move along.”
Dickey worked around a walk in the top of the first, while Buehrle induced two big swings and misses from Bautista before he reached on a grounder down the line at third. Josh Donaldson followed and after missing a long home run by several feet foul, he grounded out to short to end the frame.
“I don’t need them to be fair right now, the season, that’s when I need to save them,” Donaldson quipped. “But it was nice to get out there and face some live pitching. It’s just the first step of the process.”
The all-star third baseman, a key piece of the Blue Jays’ winter refurbishment, explained that finding his timing is typically a deliberate process for him during spring training. Monday was a small, initial step.
“You really just have to get in and see some pitches, start facing guys and really get your timing down,” Donaldson said. “Getting comfortable in the box again with a ball coming at you, it’s hard to simulate that in the off-season, especially once things get into a game scenario because there are a lot of things going on, the game within the game.”
How close to ready does he feel?
“I’m still pretty far away,” Donaldson said with a grin. “First day really getting in there in somewhat of a simulated game, getting the juices going a little bit, just really looking forward to when that first day comes, getting the body and mind ready.”
Buehrle’s wit, if not his body is already in mid-season form.
Asked how hard his fastball was during his inning, he replied: “Did you see the gun? Probably 90.”
“Obviously that’s the least of my worries, I felt good, may have broken 80 mph, I’m not sure, but made some good pitches and it’s getting into live action,” he continued. “Other than that, no biggie.”
As for regaining his smooth, controlled pitching deliver, he said, “it just comes naturally. I’m going to have some bad outings not throwing the ball where I want to sometimes out here, but it comes easy when you have a fluid motion like mine and it comes back to you once you get back on the mound.”
For Drew Hutchison, who walked a batter but got a 5-4-3 double play to send the second, the changeup was a focal point. In such a short outing, the opportunities to address specifics are limited.
“I was working on some slide steps and other stuff, some little things, changeups,” he explained. “I threw some good changeups and overall it was a good first day.”
Justin Smoak, vying for a DH/first base job, ripped a solid single up the middle off Aaron Loup in second while Daric Barton, one of his competitors, made a ridiculous scoop at first base later in the frame, doing the splits to corral a Maicer Izturis relay and complete a 6-4-3 double play.
Outfield contender Kevin Pillar lined a single to left off Brett Cecil, but later got picked off as he broke for second, with Smoak making a strong relay throw for the out.
Meanwhile Ezequiel Carrera flashed his wheels when he ripped a ball off Steve Tolleson’s glove at third base and blazed his way into second base.
Nay delivered the big, and really only, blow of the day in the fifth when he took Oramas deep.
The 58th overall pick in 2012, Nay is at his first big-league camp and is seeking to increase his power numbers this season. At six-foot-three and 195 pounds, he has the frame to generate it and feels some tweaks to his approach suggested by roving minor-league hitting coach Mike Barnett will help.
“I’m just going to kind of switch up my approach and look more, instead of trying to go to right field and stuff, I might look more power alley, left-centre area, scoreboard, and just get my hands out there,” Nay explained. “I think the pitch selection has always been decent, but more than anything it’s timing, and if I’m looking more left-centre area, I’m going to get my hands out there faster. When you’re behind a little bit, you can’t get that lift you want, and when you barrel balls you just hit line drives.
“When you get out front, I think that’s when you start to notice that the ball is going to carry a little farther.”
Two batters reached later in the fifth for Jonathan Diaz, who got hit on the left hand by Oramas. The inning was called after that.
Pitching prospect Roberto Osuna looked strong in a three-up, three-down inning and no one got hurt, which during spring training is often the most important thing of all.
The Blue Jays are expected to use most of their regulars Tuesday against the Pirates, when things start getting progressively more real.