MONTREAL – The crowd knew the moment the ball left the bat and roared accordingly, Bo Bichette went nuts in the on-deck circle, the Toronto Blue Jays players still in the Olympic Stadium dugout poured out onto the field and headed to home plate.
The whole scene was total chaos.
And there, at the centre of the joyous madness, where nostalgia for the past intersected so brilliantly with excitement for the future, the teenager who triggered it all simply dropped his bat after a ferocious swing, put his head down and circled the bases, all “been there, done that” chill.
Only once he rounded third base and was halfway home did Vladimir Guerrero Jr. throw his helmet in the air and rumble his way to home plate, where he was enveloped by the mob. No matter that the game didn’t count, no matter that the walk-off home run, which sealed a 1-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, won’t go on the 19-year-old’s career register.
This was a moment with meaning, a moment worth savouring.
“These two days have been amazing for me, like a dream come true,” Guerrero, speaking through interpreter Josue Peley, said of returning to the stadium where his father started his Hall of Fame career. “Of course, having that at-bat and having that chance to help the team win is something I’m always going to remember.”
Guerrero did unspeakable harm to the hanging slider Cardinals reliever Jack Flaherty, who had been dominant for the previous 2.2 innings, left directly in the happy zone. The mammoth blast several rows deep into the left-centre-field stands allowed a crowd of 25,816 to bookend the Montreal-born son of the last great Expos star’s visit with standing ovations.
An extremely rare pre-season game curtain call, Guerrero with both arms up, fingers pointing, capped off the proceedings in the Blue Jays’ final pre-season contest ahead of Thursday’s season opener.
“I’m surprised the roof is still on the stadium, to be honest. That was incredible,” said veteran catcher Russell Martin. “Just a special moment for the kid, for us at the same time. What a great way to finish spring training and head into the season.”
Guerrero heads to double-A New Hampshire from here, along with fellow blue-chip prospect Bichette, where he’ll quietly continue his development away from the intense glare he faced in Montreal.
Going back to the minor leagues is sure to be somewhat of a letdown after the near big-league-like experience of the two games at Olympic Stadium, where he used to romp around as a kid, raiding the ice-cream machine in the Expos clubhouse.
“Everything I’ve been doing that last two days here I’m going to remember,” said Guerrero. “I think it’s a step forward in my learning process, in my career. …
“When you play with other players that have more experience than you, it motivates you and you learn more about yourself. For me, I’m just trying to give my best every time I go out there and I see those guys that are veterans giving their 100 per cent, that’s what I try do every time.”
The senior Guerrero hit seven walk-off homers during his time with the Expos, the first coming Sept. 1, 1997 against Boston’s Joe Hudson, when he was 22, the last coming May 7, 2003 off San Diego’s Jaret Wright.
“He was a toddler running around this place when his daddy was here, I guarantee you his dad did that a few times and everything just lined up perfectly,” said manager John Gibbons. “Earlier in the game, when we were juggling everybody at the same time, we looked at who’s going to hit where and I was talking to DeMarlo [Hale, the bench coach], I said, ‘Put Vladdy up there, he might get that extra at-bat or something,’ just unconsciously came up with that. Sure enough with two outs I said to Pete [Walker, the pitching coach], ‘Gosh man, this may be the way it’s supposed to be.’
“Then all of a sudden, pow! So it’s pretty cool.”
While the junior Guerrero largely kept his emotions in check after the homer, Bichette certainly did not, leaping into the air, arms waving wildly. An uber-talented 20-year-old, the Blue Jays are hoping he and Guerrero become the franchise’s next great pillars.
“That was something he needed to enjoy right there. I was enjoying it just as much as he was. That was awesome,” said Bichette. “I can’t imagine what kind of nerves he was going through with the ovations and stuff like that, but he handled it well, obviously. I can’t think of a better way to end it here.”
Some other talking points from the Blue Jays on Tuesday:
• Joe Biagini closed out his spring with five shutout innings, allowing five hits and a walk with six strikeouts, against the Cardinals.
“That was the best I’ve seen him in a long time, really, as a starter,” said manager John Gibbons, who added that the right-hander has been working on speeding up his pace on the mound at the urging of pitching coach Pete Walker. Biagini will need to work faster as there’s a 15-second pitch clock in triple-A, where he’s expected to open the season at the front of the Buffalo rotation.
• Gibbons said Gift Ngoepe made the team as the backup middle infielder over Danny Espinosa, as the Blue Jays opted for the stronger defender rather than the better hitter.
The thinking is that with three groundball pitchers on the staff in Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Jaime Garcia, Ngoepe for the moment, provides better support for Aledmys Diaz at shortstop than Espinosa, who is expected to accept an assignment to Buffalo. If they need to adjust later, they can.