Pillar looking the part in Blue Jays’ leadoff spot

J.A. Happ allowed one run over 2.2 innings while striking out five to get the Blue Jays a 5-1 win over the Rays.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — The Toronto Blue Jays took advantage of Chris Archer’s bouncing slider to score all the runs they’d need to beat the Tampa Bay Rays and improve to 7-1-1 on the spring. Archer threw two wild pitches — both with the bases loaded — as part of a 32-pitch first inning, a frame in which he walked two and gave up two hits.

Here’s what stood out about yet another Blue Jays’ spring win:

Kevin Pillar went 1-for-2 with a walk out of the leadoff spot on Wednesday. It appears as though Pillar is likely to head up the Blue Jays’ batting order once things begin for real, and in order to stay there he’s going to have to start having better at-bats on a regular basis than he has in the past.

Leading off isn’t about drawing walks, though that’s certainly better than getting out. It’s about not putting yourself in bad hitting counts by swinging early at pitches that either aren’t strikes or are strikes that you can’t handle. When a hitter lays off those kinds of pitches, he finds himself ahead in the count more often, and the hits and walks tend to follow.

In his first at-bat, Pillar took two balls from Archer to get ahead in the count and then put a good swing on a 2-0 fastball, driving it to left-centre where it was caught by Corey Dickerson. The next time up, he showed us something we haven’t seen much of in the past by laying off a two-strike slider that was down and away. He had a notion, as Tom Cheek used to say, but checked his swing and stayed alive in the at-bat.

The next pitch was a fastball, and Pillar hit it into right-centre for a triple. Next time up, Pillar walked on four pitches against Ryan Webb, loading the bases for Ryan Goins, who came through with a two-run single that basically put the game away.

One of the main reasons Richard Urena is one of the Blue Jays’ top prospects is the way he plays defence. He showed it off on Wednesday, coming in for the second half of the game behind Goins (and an inning from Darwin Barney) at shortstop.

The just-turned-20-year-old was tested immediately upon his entrance into the game in the bottom of the sixth inning, when Mayo Acosta hit a ground ball into the hole to his right. Urena ranged far to get it, and was three steps deep onto the outfield grass by the time he released the ball towards first, one-hopping a strong throw that was picked by Casey Kotchman for a fantastic out.

In the seventh, Richie Shaffer hit a pop foul down the left-field line. Urena gave chase and made the grab as he toppled over the tarp sitting at the edge of the fence, somehow holding on to record yet another pretty out.

Urena also had the ball hit to him for the last two outs of the eighth inning, one a broken-bat roller that he fielded on the right side of second base, the other a bouncer in and to his right on which he circled the ball beautifully and made a strong throw on the run. Very impressive.

The one thing Ezequiel Carrera is missing in his fight to win the fourth outfielder’s job is the ability to hit right-handed. If he could do that, the job would more than likely be his already given his defence, his speed and the job he did for the Blue Jays last year.

He can’t, but Carrera did himself a big favour in the eighth inning Wednesday with a sensational at-bat against tough lefty Enny Romero, who was throwing 98-mph bullets. Carrera hung in there and turned around one of those heaters for an infield single to second, a great left-on-left at–bat against a pitcher who wound up striking out the side. In just 30 plate appearances, Carrera hit .310/.333/.448 against lefties last season. If he can handle the southpaws, he’s got a great chance to break with the big club.

The Blue Jays continue their spring schedule with a Thursday date in Tampa against the New York Yankees. It’ll be the first sortie of the spring for Jose Bautista, who is expected to DH, and for new Yankees’ acquisition Aroldis Chapman.

Kevin Barker and I will have all the action for you beginning at 1 p.m. ET, just go to mlb.com and sign up for their audio package. They’ll ask you for a credit card number, but it’s free for the spring — I promise.

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