ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Sometimes all that separates a gem from a dud, or a win from a loss is one measly, well-timed sinker. That was certainly the case Thursday night in the Toronto Blue Jays’ first victory of the 2017 season, when Tampa Bay Rays starter Blake Snell walked himself into trouble in the top half of the third and couldn’t escape the jam, and Marcus Stroman walked himself into trouble in the bottom of the fourth, and could.
The difference in a 5-2 win was that Kendrys Morales pummelled a 95.1 mph fastball 444 feet to left-centre field for a grand slam during the pivotal third, while Brad Miller beat a 93.5 mph two-seamer into the ground in the fourth leading to an inning-ending double play.
A 4-0 edge at that point was never seriously threatened again.
"It feels good right now," Stroman said of his sinker. "I feel like me and Russ (Martin) have a pretty good connection as far as exactly what we’re trying to do with it in certain counts, throwing it in, throwing it out. I feel like I have a pretty good feel for it wherever I want to throw it in the zone. Once I have that pitch going, all my other pitches play off that."
Stroman induced three double plays in all with his nine groundballs over 6.1 strong innings, making an assertive entry into the new season. Relying primarily on his two-seamer, Stroman also sprinkled in his slider effectively while varying the timing in his delivery to further keep the Rays off balance.
He was also helped by a clever bit of relief work in the seventh after he allowed Logan Morrison’s RBI single, as Joe Biagini came on with two on and one out, and got Tim Beckham to roll over a 94-mph four seamer for a 5-3 twin-kill that preserved a 5-1 edge.
The Rays tacked on a run in the ninth on a wild pitch before Jason Grilli came on to strikeout Morrison and Rickie Weeks Jr., and snuff out the rally.
The Blue Jays, of course, were on the other end of a pivotal two-seamer a night earlier, when Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the top of the ninth by getting Steve Pearce to hit into a game-ending double play, sealing a 3-1 win.
"That sinker is what set (Stroman) apart now that he’s really established in the big-leagues," said manager John Gibbons. "He didn’t have that when he first got here, he picked it up and it’s a huge pitch for him. Just roll that ball on the ground. … When you can bail yourself with two quick outs, it makes a huge, huge difference."
Snell doesn’t have the vicious sinker Britton does, nor pretty much anyone else for that matter, so when Darwin Barney singled with an out in the third and Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista followed with two-out walks, he went to his fastball to challenge Morales.
The Cuban slugger fouled off a 95.8 mph fastball on the outer edge on the first pitch before Snell missed middle-in with his second offering, which Morales unloaded on. The grand slam made him the ninth Blue Jays player to have his first homer come with the bases loaded, and his previous granny came against his new team last Aug. 7, off Brett Cecil.
"In that situation, you’re not looking for pitches. He threw me a fastball that I liked and I put wood on it," Morales said of his approach through interpreter Josue Peley. "I just try to react to any pitch that’s coming. If you react well and you put good wood on it, a fastball is going to go far. I was lucky it happened today."
On the flip side, Stroman issued one-out walks to Kevin Kiermaier and Evan Longoria in the fourth before coaxing Miller into swinging at a sinker over the heart of the plate but right on the bottom edge of the zone.
With Steven Souza Jr., on third and one out in the fifth, Stroman induced a weak comebacker by Beckham which he fielded and threw home. The high toss pulled Martin up the third-base line a touch, but he caught it and applied a tag as Souza slid into him. Souza took the worst of it as his leg smashed into Martin’s shin guard.
The Rays challenged both the out call and that Martin failed to give the runner a path to the plate, to no avail.
"It was a terrible throw," said Stroman. "Russ made an unbelievable play to leap and make the tag. Kind of short-armed it, kind of in between but I’ve got to be much better in delivering a better ball there. He made an unbelievable play. That just shows you the athleticism of Russell. He’s huge man, he’s the rock of the group."
The Blue Jays went small to squeeze out another run in the seventh, as Gibbons put the squeeze on with Darwin Barney up and Martin at third base. Barney’s bunt was perfectly placed up the first-base line and Morrison couldn’t field it cleanly for an error, allowing him to reach on a play scored a sacrifice.
"That’s just to appease all our fans up north," Gibbons quipped of putting on the bunt. "That was on my mind."