ST. LOUIS – Opening day or not, that was a lot. Nineteen runs on 34 hits. A combined 14 pitchers and 384 pitches. A steady stream of late-game leverage. A three-hour 38-minute time of game in spite of the pitch clock and not including Adam Wainwright’s surprise two-plus minute take on the Star-Spangled Banner before the festivities started.
And at the end, star power versus star power. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. first stemmed a St. Louis Cardinals rally in the seventh inning with a brilliant stab of a Tommy Edman chopper before making an off-balance throw home to save a run, then fought off 102.9 m.p.h. Jordan Hicks heat for a two-run single that put the Toronto Blue Jays up 8-7 in the eighth. Then it was a Lars Nootbar walk, a Paul Goldschmidt double and a two-run Nolan Arenado double off Yimi Garcia in the bottom half that restored a 9-8 lead for the defending National League Central champs.
Not even Ryan Helsley, the other fire-breathing dragon in the Cardinals bullpen who came up in trade discussions between the clubs during the off-season, could hold that lead as he walked Whit Merrifield to open the ninth, Kevin Kiermaier followed with a base hit, George Springer flared an RBI single just into shallow left and Guerrero delivered a go-ahead sac fly.
Finally, Jordan Romano, the eighth Blue Jays pitcher of the day, put a lid on the madness, locking down a bonkers 10-9 season-opening victory before a festive crowd of 47,649 at Busch Stadium.
These teams didn’t dip their toes into 2023, they cannonballed straight into the deep end.
“Definitely crazy,” said Romano, who struck out Edman and Nootbar during a ruthless 12-pitch, three-up, three-down ninth. “Going into today, I just felt it was going to be a dogfight all day, two pretty good teams going at it and yeah, it was a pretty crazy game.”
Such was the depth of drama at the end that the rough outings for all-stars Alek Manoah and Miles Mikolas, each of whom lasted only 3.1 innings and allowed five earned runs, could be easily forgotten.
In between there was so much to take in, from Manoah finding his velocity but taking damage on two mistake pitches that ended up in the seats, to the Blue Jays’ off-season upgrades to their outfield defence and baserunning helping to make the difference in the end.
“It just lets us know that everything that we’ve talked about, everything that we’ve preached, it matters,” said Springer, whose sliding catch on a Brendan Donovan liner in the second saved at least one run, if not more. “Stuff like that doesn’t show up in a box score but guys know it. It’s a long year and it’s hard to do it all the time. But that’s the style of game that everybody expects to play.”
Daulton Varsho didn’t steal any hits in left field, but he cleverly cut off a couple of balls headed to the wall in left to prevent runners from advancing an extra 90 feet as a complement to his RBI double in the first and left-on-left sacrifice fly in the fourth. Kiermaier, meanwhile, stole an RBI single from Tyler O’Neill with a sliding catch in the eighth and then made a tremendous read on Springer’s flare in the ninth, sprinting first to third and catching the Cardinals so off-guard they threw behind him to second base.
“Once the ball was probably mid-flight I knew it was going to drop in,” said Kiermaier. “With my speed, I can take a little bit longer than probably most guys to judge what’s going to happen because you can’t have that ball be caught and me get doubled off. This is where experience plays a huge part. I knew it was going to fall, got to third and Vladdy drove me in a couple guys later.”
Guerrero demonstrated his versatility at the plate during the two late rallies, fighting off Hicks’ big velocity in the eighth and then adjusting when Helsley threw him back-to-back sliders in the ninth, allowing him to capitalize on Kiermaier’s pivotal dash.
“I love it,” said manager John Schneider. “I mean, we’ve been seeing (Kiermaier) do that against us for however many years and he’s thinking a step ahead. Things like that, like we’ve been saying from Day 1, how can you make your teammates’ life easier? And it’s a whole lot easier hitting with a runner at third with less than two outs. Not everyone can do that. He’s an elite base runner. … Things like that, if you just do it consistently, it all adds up. If it means one win, if it means five – great. All things considered, love the way they did it.”
Manoah loved the way his team fought back but not the two pitches that really cost him, a first-pitch fastball that Canadian slugger O’Neill pummelled over the wall in right-centre for a two-run homer in the third that cut an early Blue Jays lead to 4-3 and a lazy 0-2 slider that Donovan took deep for another two-run homer in the fourth.
“I didn’t get beat on good pitches. I got beat on bad pitches,” said Manoah. “That’s an easy adjustment.”
More important is that after sitting 91 with his fastball during the season, he averaged 94 against the Cardinals, getting four whiffs on his four-seamer and six more with his sinker. His slider was more of the issue this time out, but the more important takeaway is that he was more himself from a process perspective in his 85 pitches.
“Thank the lord spring training is over,” Manoah quipped when asked about his fastball returning to normal. “Stuff felt really good. Mechanics felt really good. Really, really trusting the way my legs were working and my arm was on time. Everything felt really good. So make those little adjustments here and there and continue to compete as hard as I can. That was at a high level today and it felt good to be out there competing and grinding as hard as I can.”
Manoah was far from the only one in a game that included six lead changes, five of them from the sixth inning on.
“When it goes to that situation, the other team responds every time that you score, it shows what courage and what we can do as a team overall,” said Varsho. “It’s just a lot of fun playing that baseball because we can do a lot of different things that a lot of teams can’t.”
A wild season opener demanded the Blue Jays do all of it.