BUFFALO, N.Y. – The joyous vibe at Rogers Centre the night Troy Tulowitzki made his Toronto Blue Jays debut remains just as vivid four years on for Ben Revere, who was there July 29, 2015 as the leadoff hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies. A crowd of 27,060 made enough noise to make you think there were twice as many people in a place more alive than it had been for decades.
“You could tell the atmosphere of the city was surreal, that’s what they had been waiting for since 92-93 – to have that feel again – and it was in the air,” says Revere. “Tulo freaking had three RBIs in that game and went off, and I was like, ‘Oh man, this team is going to be good.’ Then they get David Price, LaTroy Hawkins, Mark Lowe, and then I get a call, ‘How does it feel to be with the Blue Jays,’ from the MLB Network. I’m like, ‘Don’t be playing with me right now.’ Sure enough I look on the TV and there it was. Get a notification and I packed my stuff so quickly to try and get up there.”
Revere ended up playing in 56 games for the Blue Jays during the 43-18 run that followed Tulowitzki’s acquisition, batting .319/.354/.381 and helping them reach the American League Championship Series, where they lost in six games to the Kansas City Royals. Even though he’s still haunted by a sketchy called second strike that changed his at-bat in the ninth inning of Game 6 against the Royals, the 31-year-old describes those three months as “the best time of my life.”
“Canada is hockey, it’s definitely hockey, but they know their baseball,” says Revere, who on April 27 rejoined the Blue Jays on a minor-league deal and is currently at triple-A Buffalo. “The two years they went to the ALCS, they packed that place out and the city was alive. It was a different vibe. I’m trying to play this game for a long time, hopefully I can get back to that feeling. I know it’s a business, but you try to get back there, try to get Toronto back to the playoffs again because that was the best time of my life.”
Revere’s career has oscillated since that memorable run, starting with his January 2016 trade to the Washington Nationals for reliever Drew Storen. He posted a lowly OPS of .560 in 2016, wasn’t tendered a contract, ended up in free agency, signed with the Los Angeles Angels, performed well but got squeezed out when the team acquired Justin Upton.
In the off-season ahead of 2018, he was among the free agents to find little interest in his services. He signed a minor-league deal with the Cincinnati Reds that Feb. 26, opted out in late March to rejoin the Angels, but never made it back the majors. This year, he went to camp with the Texas Rangers but that didn’t take, and he was at home in Kentucky, staying in shape, when “the Blue Birds called me again,” seeking to add some depth to the system.
“Sitting at home in February I was thinking, man this is it, they’re really not going to let me have another chance,” says Revere. “I know a bunch of guys that are home right now without a job, it’s frustrating for them, but thank the good lord for allowing the Blue Jays to call me just to play. I have to compete, play hard and if they do want to call me up to help out or do whatever they want me to do, I’ll do that. Right now I’ve got to help the Buffalo Bisons win some games.
“I feel confident I can play in the big-leagues – it’s just getting the opportunity again.”
FAITH IN THE FOUR-SEAMER: During the off-season, Justin Shafer regularly visited the Blue Jays complex in Dunedin, Fla., so the training staff could keep tabs on his recovery from a flexor strain in his right elbow. Once he resumed throwing, his progress was tracked with a Rapsodo unit, which prompted him to take a deep dive into his data.
The numbers suggested the right-hander could succeed by throwing four-seamers up in the zone. For a pitcher who’s been praised for his sinker since being taken in the eighth round of the 2014 draft, it’s been a difficult transition to make.
“I find it baffling that I can throw a fastball right there,” Shafer says, putting his hand by his belly button, “and it’s not going to get killed. It’s hard to trust that. So I struggle to trust throwing the ball up there. I see people do it, guys that don’t even throw hard, and they get swing and miss and it’s like, how? That’s something I still need to work on.”
Thus far it’s hard to argue with the results for the right-hander, who’s allowed only two earned runs in 15.2 innings over 12 appearances as the Bisons closer, converting all four of his save chances heading into play Friday.
He’s struck out 12 against six walks, and throwing more strikes has been a focus for him since debuting in the majors last August, when he lived dangerously with seven walks in 8.1 innings. Throwing a four-seamer more often is helping on that front, as his sinker often had a mind of its own, yet it’s hard to leave his inducing-weak-contact past behind.
“When I was drafted, if you came in as a sinker guy, they loved you,” says Shafer. “I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing that kept me around at the beginning, just being able to throw sinkers, because I wasn’t able to throw strikes much and didn’t really know where anything was going. But they loved sinkers. It’s not that sinkers are bad now. But everyone is willing to swing and miss now, so you’ve just got to find a way to get that swing and miss.”
ROMANO IN RELIEF: The plan for Canadian right-hander Jordan Romano when he returned to the Blue Jays as a Rule 5 pick from the Rangers was to stretch out as a starter and be part of the Bisons rotation. But that plan was abandoned in late April as he shifted to the Buffalo bullpen, giving him a chance to grow into the relief role the Rangers had envisioned for him.
“We talked it over and we thought it was best for me to go back to relieving,” says the 26-year-old from Markham, Ont., who spent the past three years as a starter after being drafted in 2014 as a closer out of college. “It took an adjustment. When I was in Texas, I was treating it like I was starting. When I’m starting, I’m not giving it everything on every pitch because I’d tire out pretty quickly. I was kind of laying it in there a little bit and they were like, ‘Hey, you’re going 1-2 innings, 20 pitches, whatever it is, you’ve got to give it what you’ve got.’
“I had to bump up the intensity on every single pitch so that was a little different, but after a week or two I had it down.”
Prior to this spring with the Rangers – who acquired him with the Chicago White Sox after they selected him in the Rule 5 draft – Romano hadn’t pitched in relief since rookie-ball Bluefield in 2014, just before he underwent Tommy John surgery.
Romano is now locking in on a fastball-slider combination, abandoning his changeup “unless it’s an emergency,” he says with a laugh. “Those are my strengths and in the bullpen I think they can play up a little bit.”
The results have been mixed in the early going, but that’s unsurprising given his adaptation to a new, less structured role.
“I haven’t really felt comfortable, I’d say,” says Romano. “All my stuff is there, I’m just making too many mistakes lately. It’s pretty frustrating, but arm feels good, body feels good so it’s just slight adjustments I need to make.”