TORONTO – Back in the day, the Toronto Blue Jays had an executive who would shrug his shoulders whenever something went awry and use a phrase that was heard fairly often. “Sometimes,” he’d say matter-of-factly, “you have to make chicken salad out of chicken (feces).”
The mantra so apt during some lean years then came to mind Thursday, as the Blue Jays played a home opener away from their Rogers Centre home for the second straight year, forced by the pandemic to take refuge in a minor-league park gussied up for the pomp and circumstance.
With Ontario back in lockdown for a third time, case numbers growing exponentially and hospital capacity alarmingly scarce, watching the Blue Jays fall 7-5 in 11 innings to the Los Angeles Angels at TD Ballpark was another reminder of just how far normalcy is from reach.
The overarching challenge north of the border is finding the determination to make the best of dire circumstances, which on a far less significant scale is also what the Blue Jays must do, too.
After all, the outlook they take while playing out of their spring home, originally set for use by the club’s low-A affiliate, will play a large role in how the season turns out. Last summer, when the Blue Jays left summer camp in Toronto unsure where they’d be playing and eventually settled on triple-A Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, they embraced the chaos, used the discomfort of visiting clubs and amassed a 17-9 record there.
They’ll need a repeat to succeed again.
“We've got to use it to our advantage,” said Ross Stripling, who allowed four runs in five innings of work. “There's no way the Angels rolled up to the stadium today and were like, ‘This is a big-league game.’ They probably were like, 'What the heck is this?' So use that to our advantage, win as many games as we can here and hopefully move to Toronto by summertime.”
In all likelihood, the Blue Jays will end up back in Buffalo in June. The Bisons are set to clear out the place with a deal nearing for them to play out of Trenton, N.J., according to two industry sources. Sahlen Field is currently undergoing a series of upgrades that should be completed by the time the Blue Jays are ready to bail on the searing heat and regular rain of the Florida summer.
Their hope had been to go straight from Dunedin to Toronto, but now that Ontario has Florida’d the apparent homestretch of the pandemic, get ready for Buffalo redux.
Hence, the mantra, and the need to trudge through the dung and emerge with some salad.
To that end, manager Charlie Montoyo got his second vaccination before the game, and some players got shots as well. The home opener before a crowd of 1,348 (short of the 23 per cent of capacity permitted) featured a terrific ballgame between two legit contenders, in which the bandbox dimensions of TD Ballpark, and its 353-foot power alley in right field, had no bearing on the outcome.
Cavan Biggio’s game-tying homer in the sixth, a 395-foot drive to right-centre, was a legit drive gone at most places, too. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had to shield his eyes in left from the setting sun in the early going but no misadventures followed. “The toughest deal is in the first inning,” said Montoyo.
There were a handful of awkward jumps on balls in the air, but it’s not clear if that was related to night-time visibility issues.
“That was a big topic in the locker-room from position players and all that kind of stuff,” said Stripling. “I didn't necessarily notice. I felt like it was lit up just fine.”
Opposite the best player of this generation in Trout, Guerrero was a force at the plate, adding a go-ahead RBI single in the sixth and a two-out walk in the eighth, although he looked ready to snap his bat after a strikeout in the 11th.
Randal Grichuk made his second diving catch of the game in centre field with two on and two outs in the ninth to rob Trout of a go-ahead run-scoring single. But the Blue Jays squandered chances to win the game in the ninth and 10th innings, and then David Fletcher’s two-run single in the 11th off Rafael Dolis settled matters.
Stripling delivered five innings of keep-the-team-in-the-ballgame work, getting burned twice more by tormentor Trout, who is now a career 7-for-10 against the right-hander.
“Trout owns me. He knows it. I know it. Maybe by putting it out there into the atmosphere now it'll put some luck back in my favour,” said Stripling. “He kind of went out of the norm for him. Both those, two outs, nobody on, swung at the first pitch both times, double in the first and then the homer in the fifth. Normally he’s more passive there. The homer would have hit Danny Jansen right in the glove and he hits it 450 feet. That's exactly where I wanted to throw it.
“He's a matchup nightmare for me because he hammers the ball down in the zone and hammers off-speed in the strike zone, which is what my bread and butter is,” continued Stripling. “You can beat him up in the zone with velocity, but I throw 91 miles an hour, so he can get to that, as you saw on the home run. He’s a guy that you almost have to keep him in the ballpark as best you can. A walk is not the worst thing for me. But you go at him with no one on base. He just made me pay for it today.”
Griffin Canning surrendered a two-out RBI single to Teoscar Hernandez in the first ahead of Guerrero’s two-run homer, and then retired 14 straight batters before Biggio’s solo shot in the sixth ended his night.
The proximity of the walls at TD Ballpark may tempt hitters into swinging big, a phenomenon Marcus Semien recalls experiencing at Houston’s Minute Maid park, “where left field is very short and in that first game you’re just a little bit more pull-happy than usual as a righty.”
“It’s hard to stay within yourself depending on the ballpark,” he added. “But I feel like Dunedin, if the wind is blowing out it’s a good place to hit, and if it’s blowing in, it’s a tough place to hit, similar to Wrigley Field, somewhere like that.
"Every day we pull up to the yard we’ll see where the flags are going and do our best.”
For the moment, that’s really all the Blue Jays, and the rest of us for that matter, can do.