Onus is on Blue Jays fans to give Grichuk time to live up to new deal

Randal Grichuk launched two home runs to lead the Toronto Blue Jays over the Baltimore Orioles 5-3.

Randal Grichuk believes he is ready to replace Kevin Pillar. Now, it’s up to Toronto Blue Jays fans to let him do it.

The pressure is off Grichuk, many are saying, because he has a five-year, $52-million contract extension. But I’m not so sure. He is the heftiest financial investment made by the Mark Shapiro/Ross Atkins front office, and despite the fact that the numbers suggest Grichuk is a superior defensive centre-fielder to Pillar, in these days of sub-15,000 home crowds at the Rogers Centre one man’s vote of confidence can be another man’s target. Especially when he spends much of his day standing in centre field in front of a bar, as Grichuk does with the WestJet Flight Deck behind his back.

Grichuk couldn’t have done much more than he did Wednesday in his first start after inking that extension, slugging a pair of solo home runs as the Blue Jays beat the Baltimore Orioles 5-3 to finish a 3-4 season-opening homestand. This was a day when the Blue Jays signalled their intentions early, scoring a first-inning run on an infield hit and throwing error that brought home Grichuk, who had reached on a one-out double.

Grichuk’s double matched the Blue Jays’ first-inning hit total through their first six games of the regular-season.

All that was missing was an acrobatic catch.

“I had one fan on that (Trey) Mancini home run say ‘Pillar would have caught that one,’” said Grichuk, who heard similar sentiments on a couple of other occasions, too — including a fifth-inning, ground-rule double by Rio Ruiz that resulted in a couple of ‘We want Kevin’ cat-calls.

“That’s definitely nice of him,” Grichuk said, shrugging. “Um, but it’s one of those things. I know I can play centre. I don’t think about what the fans are going to think — if I’m not going to get to a ball they think Pillar would have got to, or something like that.

“I just can’t let that creep in,” Grichuk said. “I just have to go out there and play and know that defensively I can make plays and make things happen and trust in my abilities.”

Nobody said replacing Superman would be easy, although the guess here is it won’t take but a few weeks to see that Grichuk is a superior fielder and hitter to Pillar, who was in many ways the last man standing from the 2015-16 teams that resurrected baseball in this city. Not only was he here for the two good years, Pillar was also here for the waning of those years — through the loss of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista and the diminishing of skills and stature of Russell Martin. Pillar was an outlier: a home-grown position player on a team built largely on other people’s draft picks and development philosophies — built, in some cases, on rent-a-players.

So it’s understandable that turning the page might be a bit of a process in these early days, in a city that waits for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and even then has modest expectations for the team as a whole.

The Blue Jays will on Thursday begin a six-game, eight-day trip to Cleveland and Boston after a homestand that was a mixed bag. The good must be led first and foremost by the starting rotation, which with the exception of one horrible inning from Sean Reid-Foley did what it needed to do against two not very good lineups, the Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles.

Matt Shoemaker (2-0) was the guy Wednesday, striking out eight while giving up two hits and a walk and becoming the fifth player in club history to pitch back-to-back outings of seven-plus innings with no runs allowed — the first Blue Jays starter to do so since Brandon Morrow in 2011. The bullpen did its part as well. Suddenly fast-working Joe Biagini has been a revelation so far in a set-up role that was supposed to belong to either Ryan Tepera (who is injured) or Bud Norris (who has been released). And Ken Giles has been filthy, picking up his second save Wednesday after Mancini’s three-run homer off Daniel Hudson with one out in the ninth pulled the Orioles to within two runs.

Giles struck out Renato Nunez and Rio Ruiz on nine pitches, eight of them sliders.

That, too, has been a welcomed aspect of the Blue Jays homestand: the amount of swings and misses generated. Blue Jays pitchers have recorded 80 strikeouts in their first seven games.

“If we pitch like this the rest of the year, I believe we are going to win some games this year,” said manager Charlie Montoyo.

“Because our offence will get hot.”

If that’s the case, it will take a better approach than the Blue Jays showed through much of these seven games. They were eaten up by high fastballs from Tigers and Orioles pitchers and although the Blue Jays pitchers returned the favor it will be intriguing to see how they are attacked by Indians and Red Sox pitchers in what should be very cool and damp outdoor conditions.

The most positive offensive sign, to that end, had to be the two-hit day from Lourdes Gurriel Jr,. who snapped a career-long 25 at-bat hitless streak with a second-inning chopper to third after a ridiculously wild, looping swing at the previous pitch — then sheepishly asked for the ball. Gurriel’s second hit was a two-run double down the left-field line in the ninth that brought home what would turn out to be the winning runs, although Gurriel was thrown out trying for the triple, rumbling into Ruiz and third base and staying down on one knee before leaving the field.

“That was a big two runs … with whatever that thing he did was,” Montoyo said later, laughing.

“You need to be lucky some times,” Montoyo said, referring to Gurriel’s slump-breaking single. “It should get him (Gurriel) going.”

And so ended the first home-stand of the rebuild, the first home-stand of a season that promises more comings and goings and is sure to challenge even the most steadfast believer in this front office. Pillar was traded to the San Francisco Giants, Grichuk was extended, and Thursday the Blue Jays are expected to make roster moves to add infielder Alen Hanson (acquired from the Giants in the Pillar deal) and Socrates Brito, a toolsy, athletic player who made a positive impression on coach Shelly Duncan and Brandon Drury when they were both with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Barring another trade, it would seem likely that Anthony Alford is one of the players sent to Triple-A Buffalo but after that it gets interesting. Richard Urena has options, but he’s also 7-for-15 and has played polished defence. Rowdy Tellez seems to have won over Montoyo. Hey, in a season that has already seen Superman traded, who knows where it goes?

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