TORONTO – Even before pandemic displacement forced the Toronto Blue Jays to take refuge at Sahlen Field, Jordan Romano had become very familiar with Buffalo, N.Y. He first touched the triple-A Bisons in 2018 and then spent most of 2019 there before returning to the city as a big-leaguer last year and this one.
On occasion, the chaos of the Blue Jays’ situation since COVID-19 upended life worldwide will hit the 28-year-old reliever from Markham, Ont.
“Yeah, definitely, sometimes you're just sitting there reflecting a little bit and it's like, 'Wow, what a few years it's been, haven't been playing in Toronto, playing in Buffalo, no fans, now with fans.’ It's been like a whirlwind,” Romano said. “A lot of things have been going on, but I feel like everyone's just dealt with it, rolled with those punches and now we're going back to Toronto.”
Well, first there’s a seven-game road trip that opens at Citi Field against the New York Mets on Friday before the Rogers Centre return, but the Blue Jays closed out their eventful stay in Buffalo with a 7-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday night.
Last year, Sahlen Field became their emergency landing spot after attempts to play in Toronto, Pittsburgh and Baltimore failed, and they ended up going 17-9 there while celebrating the eighth post-season berth on their triple-A team’s infield last Sept. 24.
This year, as a third wave of COVID-19 washed over Ontario, the Blue Jays played their first 21 home games at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., before returning north for what turned out to be a two-month pit stop at a ballpark that was renovated in advance for the possibility.
This time, they went only 12-11 at Sahlen Field. But in 22 home dates, including a single-admission doubleheader, they drew 170,130 fans for an average of 7,733 that is better than three big-league clubs – Tampa Bay (7,214), Oakland (6,734) and Miami (6,464).
Impressive stuff, Buffalonians.
“What the Blue Jays front office did here to make this place looks as close to a big-league ballpark (as possible), there are no words for me to say how grateful we are for what they did,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “I mean, this place looked great last year and this year it's even better. This year with fans has been really good, and we've played well in this ballpark.”
Still, it was far from all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows as highlighted by the two losses to the Red Sox this week.
Just like during the June 15-17 series against the New York Yankees, the crowd was firmly stacked against the Blue Jays, and each of the three homers surrendered by Robbie Ray on Wednesday, and the two others coughed up by a rusty Romano in the eighth, was celebrated as if the game was at Fenway Park.
Sure, there were oohs and aahs for Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 32nd homer of the season and, really, how could there not, regardless of rooting interest. Outside of Shohei Ohtani, he’s the best show in baseball right now.
But the scene reinforced how the Blue Jays really are nothing more than tenants at Sahlen Field, and how sorely they’ve lacked a true home.
“We're definitely looking forward to getting up to Toronto,” said Ray, who allowed four runs in five innings while fighting through some inconsistencies with his fastball. “It was fine here. … Both parks that we played in aren't very forgiving with the flyball. So we're looking forward to getting up to Toronto and pitching in front of the home crowd, as well.”
No stadium in baseball was more hitter friendly than TD Ballpark and based on the set of park factors here, Sahlen Field was right there with Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park and Colorado’s Coors Fields among launching pads.
The dome in recent years has played much closer to neutral, something Blue Jays pitchers are sure to appreciate, but Montoyo correctly points out that “at the end of the day, it's the same for both teams.”
“We didn't execute pitches the past two games – that's how I would put it,” said Montoyo. “Ray's been lights out, just today he gave up the home runs.”
That Ray did and a two-game lull against the Red Sox, dropping the Blue Jays to 4-7 against the AL East leaders this year, made for an inopportune ending to the Buffalo portion of the schedule.
Eight more games between the rivals loom in the next two-and-a-half weeks, meaning the time is nigh to make a move.
“They do have a good lineup, but we've just got to pitch better. That's it,” said Montoyo. “We did play well in Boston last time and we hit them pretty good. That's why I always talk about pitching. You know our offence is going to hit but we're not going to hit every day. These past two games, it was just about the pitching. We just couldn't keep them in the ballpark.”
After the Blue Jays got blitzed 13-4 in Monday’s opener, Ray dropped them in a 4-1 hole as he surrendered a two-run shot to Kike Hernandez in the third, a solo shot to Rafael Devers in the fourth and another blast by Michael Chavis in the fifth.
George Springer followed a Guerrero walk in the sixth with his seventh homer of the season and Teoscar Hernandez followed with his 13th for back-to-back drives, but J.D. Martinez and Hunter Renfroe got Romano in consecutive at-bats in the eighth to push the game out of reach.
Compounding matters is that Danny Jansen pulled up lame running to second on his double in the seventh and left with the tightness in his right hamstring, the same one he strained earlier this season.
That led to Alejandro Kirk being pulled from triple-A Buffalo’s game, setting up his possible return to the roster Friday. Things were trending that way, anyway, as GM Ross Atkins said earlier this week that the 22-year-old’s performance “is on our radar.”
So too is the relief of finally getting home after three with the Mets and a return four-game engagement with the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Carrying some momentum out of those games would help, but soon they’ll get reacquainted with a place that’s truly their own.
“When we found out the news, really excited, I get to see my family, again, I haven't seen them in a while and I probably got about 20, 30 text messages from like ex-teammates, buddies on how pumped they are to have us back in town,” said Romano. “It's been a long time. We're all really excited to get it going.”