TORONTO – Ahead of his first Grapefruit League game with his new club, George Springer put on his dark blue Toronto Blue Jays jersey, glanced down and took a moment to absorb the new look.
“It was a little weird, just because I've been so accustomed to the same thing for basically my whole career,” Springer said after ripping a line drive single to centre and grounding out sharply to third as the designated hitter in a 4-2, six-inning victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday. “But it's a new opportunity. I'm excited about it. … I really like the blue. It's a good colour. It was a little weird, but I'm kind of over it. It’s fun and I enjoy it.”
What was notably familiar for the star outfielder was his spot in the batting order, right back at the leadoff spot that was mostly his the past six years with the Houston Astros.
Manager Charlie Montoyo has been careful not to commit to any lineup combinations just yet, but conceded that putting Springer up top “could be a hint” into his current thinking.
“I like that,” he added, before quickly appending a “but we’ll see” caveat.
“He’s done that the whole time with Houston, so he’s really comfortable in that spot,” Montoyo said. “He’s just such a good hitter. I like when he leads off, like he did today.”
There’s certainly no need for a commitment at this point, and Montoyo will be able to mess around with a number of different looks in the weeks ahead. Marcus Semien batted behind Springer in this one, followed by Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (who ripped a solo home run off Bailey Falter in the fourth), Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Cavan Biggio, the on-base machine, all the way down in the six-spot.
Montoyo doesn’t mind Biggio that low in the order, feeling it adds length to the groupings, but how all the pieces best fit once some combination of Teoscar Hernandez, Randal Grichuk and Rowdy Tellez are also in the lineup is sure to be a spring-long talking point.
Rarely do teams repeat lineups these days, especially with the degree of matching up the Blue Jays are expected to employ this season, so much of the conversation may be moot. But finding ways to line up players in ways that maximize their comfort and mentality is important.
Similarly, Springer continues to build comfort in his new surroundings. He credited his new teammates for making him feel “very welcomed” and said he’s excited “to understand how the guys work, how the clubhouse vibe is each and every day, what time guys are getting to the ballpark every day, the stuff that they like to do.”
“It's been fun for me to learn and to watch and, again, I have to earn the respect of the clubhouse,” Springer added. “It’s fun to sit there and just kind of watch and listen.”
At the plate, where he earned the $150-million, six-year contract handed to him by the Blue Jays in January, Springer’s approach early in the spring is “generally just see the ball and hit the ball.”
“As spring training goes along, you’re not facing a new guy every inning, you're starting to face the same guy over and over again, so sequences are starting to change, the game plans are slowly starting to change,” he continued. “It becomes more of a season-like feel, facing a starter for three at-bats as opposed to one so I like to be simple, but adjust as I go.”
To that end, he’s big on judging the process behind his at-bats as opposed to his worrying about the results.
If he flies out, for example, he’ll examine whether there was something mechanically wrong with his swing, if he was late, or if he was on time.
“That's what I like to do during spring,” he said. “I just want to make sure that I can concentrate on understanding the pitch, processing the pitch and making sure I can try to hit it hard at all times. I mean, it's not going to happen, but that's my thought process.”
One that landed him in Blue Jays blue this winter, and for the time being atop Montoyo’s lineup.
MIGHTY MATZ: Two innings, one hit, three strikeouts and 15 of 21 pitches for strikes made for a solid first spring outing for left-hander Steven Matz. His sinker averaged 94.8 m.p.h., topped out at 95.9, and was complemented well by a changeup he threw four times and that generated two whiffs.
“I’m really pleased,” Matz said. “For this early in spring, I feel really comfortable on the mound. Command’s a big thing early on and having a feel for the pitches, so it was good to get that feel.”
Strong early command matters for Matz, especially with his sinker, which lost some its sink last year as he chased an uptick in velocity. Against the Phillies, after Bo Bichette nearly stole a hit on a Scott Kingery grounder that turned into an infield single, Matz induced a grounder to the mound from Alec Bohm that turned into an inning-ending double play.
“That was a sinker down and away, intention early in the count,” he said. “That was good. Even Kingery's ball, keeping him on the ground there, Bo made a great play. Keeping the ball on the ground is the name of the game, so that was definitely a good sign early.”
MAYZA RETURNS TO MOUND: Left-hander Tim Mayza, an intriguing non-roster relief option, threw a scoreless inning in his first game action since blowing out his elbow Sept. 13, 2019.
Mayza threw seven two-seamers among his 10 pitches, averaging 94.2 m.p.h. with an offering he’s been refining and believes will be important for him. He mixed in two sliders and a four-seamer, and while the power with which he threw gained notice, more heartening was simply seeing him back after Tommy John surgery.
“He’s going to get his chance – he’s competing for a job,” Charlie Montoyo said. “Honestly, it was great to see him out there. He could’ve walked the ballpark and I would’ve been happy just to see him pitch. But he was really good.”
SHORT HOPS: Marcus Semien was busy during his four innings of work at second base, turning a pair of double plays. In the first inning, he took a feed from Steven Matz for one twin-kill, and then in the third, Bo Bichette gave him a strong relay after scooping a Luke Williams grounder. “He looked really comfortable,” Montoyo said. “He’s a professional player and it looks like no problem.” … Matz joked that getting two comebackers in his two innings of work was like getting some live pitching fielding practice, or PFP. But it also helps in terms of developing trust and chemistry with his infielders. “It was good to get that today, just to see how the infield works, who was covering,” Matz said. “We had communication right before that pitch (to Alec Bohm on the double play in the first), so he was right there. The repetition is the biggest thing, so it was cool that it worked out that way in the first outing to get that under the belt.” … The teams shortened the game to six innings and, technically, the contest should have ended when Riley Adams was hit by a pitch from Cristopher Sanchez with the bases loaded to break a 2-2 tie. But the Phillies wanted Sanchez to get a bit more work, and Philip Clarke, another catching prospect, worked a walk for a 4-2 final. “We won a double-walkoff,” quipped Montoyo, “whatever that means.”