Blue Jays’ Opening Day performance provides blueprint for rest of season

Jose Berrios gets the start on opening night for the Blue Jays and only gives up two earned runs while getting six strikeouts through 6 innings. George Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio all hit home runs against the Tampa Bay Rays.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The early iterations of this Toronto Blue Jays group had a clearly defined identity — those dudes banged, as Joey Votto might put it, and scoring runs by the bushel was their typical pathway to victory. Then came 2023, with its focus on tightening up the defence to better leverage a deep pitching staff while also diversifying the offence and suddenly they were smothering opponents, only to find scoring themselves a struggle.

Augmenting one without detracting from the other was the goal, it didn’t work out that way, an identity crisis of sorts, at the plate at least, ensued and they were different, if not better. You remember the rest.

Seeking a different outcome this time around, the 2024 Blue Jays began the process of carving out a new identity as what manager John Schneider described as “a pretty complete team” Thursday evening, pounding the Tampa Bay Rays in an 8-2 Opening Day victory.

The performance was a blueprint of what the Blue Jays believe they can do on a regular basis this season. Jose Berrios, having turned the page on the debacle of his early hook in Game 2 of the post-season last fall, shook off a leadoff homer by Yandy Diaz to pin the game under his thumb over six strong innings. George Springer tied the game with a solo shot in the fourth inning while Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. both went deep during a five-run fifth that seized control of the contest. Bo Bichette’s two-run double in the seventh tacked on more runs while the bottom half of the lineup contributed a two-run single by Alejandro Kirk and an RBI single from Kevin Kiermaier.

Trevor Richards, Nate Pearson and Tim Mayza mopped up from there before a sellout crowd of 25,025 at Tropicana Field, the Blue Jays turning scribblings from the front office’s vision board into reality.

“We can pitch and we can catch the ball — you can say that pretty confidently. What I think this year’s version will be is that and then, a pretty damn good offensive team when you’re looking at the top of our lineup and then guys that are regularly playing, whether it’s (Daulton) Varsho or Kirky, that are better than probably what they showed last year,” said Schneider. “There are obviously things we need to get better at, whether it’s baserunning or situational things. But we don’t want it to be, OK, two years ago it was offence and then last year it was pitching, and now we’re going to go back to offence. It’s got to happen together. We were searching for that the entirety of last year. But I think it’s a pretty complete team right now.”

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All those elements were there springboarding into the new season, including a low-key strong defensive play by Biggio to end the fifth, when he stretched to snare an errant throw from Kirk and tagged Jose Caballero on the leg trying to steal second to end the inning, the out coming after a replay challenge.

Biggio then ripped a solo shot with one out in the sixth off Zach Eflin to put the Blue Jays ahead 2-1, Guerrero followed with a monster 450-foot tank to dead centre that stretched the lead and they tacked on three more runs from there, Kirk’s bases-loaded single opening up breathing room.

“That’s a team that can run and try and steal some bags and we’ve have to take our breaks when we can get them,” said Biggio. “We were fortunate there to get that overturned and go into the next inning trying to break up Eflin’s rhythm … 

“I think it’s really important for us as individuals to not go up there and try to do too much,” he continued. “I know we hit a couple homers, but toward the back end of that inning, we just kept stringing together good at-bats, some clutch hits with two outs to get some runs across. It’s all about not trying to do too much in big situations and just try to take what the pitcher gives you.”

The entire inning was demonstrative of what the Blue Jays want to do at the plate under new offensive co-ordinator Don Mattingly — search for impact at the top of the lineup, hit to the situation elsewhere.

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The Blue Jays hit three or more homers in a game only 19 times last season and had just 14 multi-homer innings. They checked both boxes in Game 1 this year.

“Getting three or four hits in an inning consistently is hard to do at this level,” said Schneider. “So the guys at the top, we’re wanting them to do damage, wanting them to get into good counts and to drive the ball. And then from that, guys throughout the lineup kind of complementing that, if you will. … A big part of the game today, not just with us, but everyone, you look at Tampa, big-time power, big-time damage, and that was totally different for them last year than what they’ve done, we need guys at the top of the order to drive the ball.”

Berrios helped pull everything together, telling himself to forget about the changeup a few inches inside but still up to Diaz, and keep attacking. That’s precisely what he did, striking out the next two batters and rolling from there behind a great fastball.

The right-hander was handed the Opening Day assignment when shoulder fatigue truncated Kevin Gausman’s spring — the Blue Jays are still deciding whether to start him Sunday or Monday — and it was apt given how last year ended. Berrios rebounded strongly last year after a down 2022 and he was just as imposing as he was in Minnesota.

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“It started with my mindset,” Berrios said of his rebound a year ago. “Mentally, I was stronger, more prepared. I believe in and trust myself because the way I worked between starts gave me that confidence. But also I was able to throw good fastballs to both sides of the plate, my two-seamer to both sides of the plate. Those pitches open up my changeup and breaking ball. But first it was my mentality, it was stronger.”

The same applied to the offence in the first game. Eflin was perfect through three and allowed just the Springer homer through five but the Blue Jays didn’t relent. That’s why as much as they liked the results, it was the process behind them that mattered.

“The key was that each of us executed the plan that we had prior to the game,” Guerrero said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “And I believe that if we can continue doing that, we’re going to be just fine.”

Schneider agreed, as good nights at the plate will happen for all teams, while great ones develop an approach to ensure the production is sustainable.

“That’s what we’re chasing,” he said. “It’s not going to be perfect every night. But the guys had a really good plan … and even going nine-up, nine-down the first time through, it’s like, OK, get your feet underneath you and then make adjustments. … It’s just getting a good pitch to swing at and then just do it over and over and over again. A win’s a win no matter what but that’s pretty fulfilling to come out of camp and do that the first day.”

As is perhaps finding themselves a little bit along the way.

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