TORONTO — As he got ready to hit the sheets around 4:30 a.m. ET Friday morning, Ross Stripling looked out the window of his Rogers Centre hotel room at the field he’d be pitching on in about 15 hours’ time. He saw the big eggshell roof, the blue stands, the freshly laid turf. And then he saw the figure of a dreadlocked man miming his pitching motion up on the mound. Who is that? Is that Rafael Dolis?
“I’m like, ‘What is he doing?’ He’s just up there standing on the mound,” Stripling remembered. “Guys were just full of energy, really excited, pumped to be back. I mean, this has been a long time coming.”
And so began Opening Day in July. Flash forward to 3:30 p.m., only 12 hours after they’d arrived on Canadian soil from the longest road trip of their lives, and Blue Jays pitchers and catchers began trickling out of the club’s dugout for pre-game stretch. There was a buzz about them. An anticipation. An energy that sustained over a night none of them will forget.
Brad Hand, acquired in a trade with the Washington Nationals Thursday, introduced himself to new teammates. Alek Manoah, only eight starts into his major-league career, looked up at the clouds rolling overhead while the bass from a recently souped-up sound system reverberated around him. Danny Jansen, one of only five current Blue Jays to play more than sixty games in Toronto, caught long toss.
There was work to get done. A fresh playing surface meant a fresh round of fielding practice for the club’s pitchers, who worked on throwing comebackers to second base and covering first from a mound many of them have never competed on. All of Toronto’s infielders took an extended groundball session, as well, reacquainting themselves with big-league infield dirt. Outfielders shagged flyballs throughout batting practice, testing their sight lines, judging the open-roof carry, reading the flight of each ball into their gloves.
About a quarter after five, the stadium’s gates opened for the first time in 22 months, as fans in home whites, road greys, and alternate blues streamed down the aisles toward their seats, where they found masks and dark blue t-shirts bearing the date and the word “Home” beneath Toronto’s skyline. Meanwhile, the Cardboard cut-outs that stood in for them at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field during 2020’s abbreviated season lined the first several rows of 500 level bleachers behind home plate. Out in centre field, the flight deck began filling up with excited patrons, cans in hand.
“Just instantly, the second I was out of the dugout, people were cheering, screaming my name. The signs — it seemed like everyone had a sign: "Welcome Home." I was playing catch — I play catch real long before I pitch. So, I got all the way almost to right field. And people started screaming while I'm over there,” Stripling said. “The energy, I could feel it from the second I walked out of the dugout. And it only built as more people piled in and as the opening ceremonies got going.”
A little after 7:00pm, Blue Jays players, coaches, and staff jogged out onto the turf from an opening in the centre field wall, flanked by health care workers from Toronto General Hospital’s Medical Surgical Intensive Care Unit. Pyrotechnic smoke machines erupted and a video tribute featuring thankful fans was played as a booming “Let’s go, Blue Jays!” chant broke out amongst the 13,446 in attendance around the 100 and 200 levels.
“I was looking at Vladdy, looking at Teo — everybody's looking at each other like, 'Man, I've got the chills. I'm holding back tears,’” said Bo Bichette, who was standing at second base, right in the middle of it. “It's hard to explain the feeling. We've just kind of been trying to pretend like we had a home. And it's difficult to do for two years. So, when we finally come back here, it feels like definitely a big weight off our shoulders.”
Salutes to the crowd; anthems sung with grace by Forte — Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus; first pitches thrown to the four Blue Jays all-stars by community members such as a TTC employee and a member of the East York Baseball Association; a gigantic Canadian flag unfurled across the outfield, as it always is on marquee days at Rogers Centre, held at its edges by 250 members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 30, 2021
And then it was time to play ball. It’s what they all came out for, after all. What we’ve all been waiting 670 days to see. And the Blue Jays delivered in front of a lively, charged-up crowd for the first time in a long time, overcoming the Kansas City Royals, 6-3. Not a bad way to come home.
“It gave me goosebumps, it gave me chills,” said Stripling, who gave the Blue Jays 5.1 innings of two-run ball. “I mean, that'll be something that I talk about forever.”
All that anticipation, all that pre-game pageantry, all the zaniness of a chaotic trade deadline bled away as Stripling reached back and delivered a first-pitch strike, 90.4-m.p.h. up and over the plate. And then another — a slider that Royals leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield swung through down-and-away. The crowd came alive, not that it had ever really died down. And if Stripling had landed the next one, he would’ve felt them through his cleats.
But baseball isn’t played to a script. So, it took Stripling a few more pitches to get his first out in a three-up, three-down inning that ended with him walking back to the dugout as the place went nuts. And they really dialled it up when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. stepped to the plate in the bottom half, chants of “MVP! MVP!” ringing around the dome as everyone rose to their feet. A pitch later, the 22-year-old ripped a 107-m.p.h. liner into right to give the Blue Jays their first hit at Rogers Centre since Luke Maile’s ninth-inning single on the final day of the 2019 season.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 30, 2021
The first run since that day came an inning later, when Teoscar Hernandez saw a fastball in his inner-half happy zone and took it off the facing of the third deck. And, oh, did he pimp it. Flicked the bat away like a used chopstick. He’s felt the sensation of a no-doubter in this place before.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 30, 2021
That was a moment. Another was George Springer’s two-out double later in the inning, which cashed Randal Grichuk from second base. And an even bigger one came in the third as Bichette, who’d stolen second a pitch earlier, shot around third base on a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. single to left and flew headfirst into home plate ahead of the tag. Maybe through home plate is more accurate.
At that instant, it felt like they couldn’t lose. Not on this night. Not before this crowd. But it’ss never easy at this level, and Toronto’s bats went cold through middle innings as the Royals picked away at their lead. A run crossed with two out in the fifth, and Salvador Perez got another in the sixth with a solo shot off Stripling’s final pitch of the game. A crowd that’s waited nearly two years to cheer for something — anything — still gave him an ovation as he left the mound.
And Stripling did what the Blue Jays ask of him — take two trips through the lineup, finish five. He got 16 outs with 76 pitches, mixing fastballs with sliders and curveballs, while sneaking in a few surprise changeups that earned him three of his 10 swinging strikes. It was the kind of clean, effective start that’s he’s made time and again this season as an under-appreciated pillar at the back-end of Toronto’s rotation.
“He finds a way to get people out,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “And, honestly, he's been pitching with kind of a dead arm a little bit. He's not throwing 93-94. He's throwing 89-90. But he knows how to pitch, man. He knows how to keep you in the game. And that's what he did today.”
And while the building’s energy waned over middle-innings, it came surging back in the seventh as Alejandro Kirk led off with a single, Springer came up with his second double of the night, and Guerrero — back to his Juan Soto ways in the box, twirling his bat between pitches, tapping his foot and wagging his hips as he takes balls off the plate — walked to load the bases.
A run crossed quietly as Marcus Semien grounded into a double play. But then two crossed rather loudly as Bichette shot a line drive the opposite way that never came down, sneaking a two-run shot over the right field wall.
“Yeah, that was a good feeling,” Bichette said. “I think everybody in the lineup probably thought about hitting a home run today. So, to be able to do it was special. I'm sure I'll remember it for a long time.”
And of course it was Jordan Romano — Markham’s own — jogging out of the left field bullpen to close things out in the ninth. Sitting 97 and touching 100, Romano had to earn it as the Royals scratched across a run. But he had a defence behind him. Namely, Santiago Espinal, who bare-handed the final out of the game over his left shoulder, ending the night as memorably as it began.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 31, 2021
"We could've had a seven-run lead," Montoyo said. "Jordan Romano was going to pitch”
What a day. The pre-game pageantry; an emotional and long-awaited homecoming in a city slowly emerging from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic; one of the splashiest MLB trade deadlines in recent memory; an overhauled bullpen; a transformational deal for a frontline starter; the departure of two top prospects, one whom the club selected No. 5 overall only a year ago and signed to a franchise-record $7-million signing bonus; Hernandez’s no-doubter; Bichette doing a little bit of everything; Espinal’s ridiculous play; Opening Day in July.
“You know, today, honestly, was one of my best days in baseball. And I've been around for a long time. I was so happy to be here,” Montoyo said. “I was actually nervous for this game because I wanted us to win so bad. And for the fans back in Toronto, and that energy that we felt there at the end with that play that [Espinal] made — I was just so happy. I just for sure wanted to win today. Of course, I want to win every game. But today was awesome. What a day. I'm never going to forget this day.”