In front of 50,000 plus fans in a sold out Rogers Centre, the Toronto Blue Jays started their 2011 season with a bang, as they put on a show both before the game and on the field against the Minnesota Twins. The heartfelt tribute to Pat Gillick and Robbie Alomar’s induction to the hall of fame was nice; and after J. Cole’s “I’m Coming Home” played for what seemed to be the billionth time, the Blue Jays not only brought the Hustle and Heart (TM), but they brought the hurt as well, knocking the Twins around in a 13-3 rout.
Whatever questions that may have surrounded the Jays going into this season was at least temporarily alleviated by the team’s performance – the offense combined for 4 home runs, 3 of them off Twins starter Carl Pavano. Without question, the offensive star today was rookie JP Arencibia – the reigning PCL MVP made a hell of a first impression in his september callup last year, and topped that performance today with a 3-for-4 night that included two home runs and a triple that was almost went over the fence. The concern about Arencibia was always that how streaky his bat was going to be: but when it’s on, it’s fun to watch. Nothing really fooled the rookie catcher today, as he hit everything hard; first with a two-run bomb to centre field off Pavano, following with a 2-out, 2 run triple, and capped things off with a solo shot in the 8th off reliever Dusty Hughes. He finished his day with 5 RBIs – simply put, it was a clinic.
The rest of the Blue Jays were no slouch either, and were on the Twins from the get-go. Taking advantage of Pavano’s early game ineffectiveness (though he wasn’t really effective all evening), Rajai Davis and Yunel Escobar both reached base with hits, then combined for a double steal to show off some of the speed game that we’ve heard a bit about. Jose Bautista then walked, and Pavano hit Adam Lind to drive in the first run of the game. The bats never let up from there, and the score was 4-0 after the first inning, as the Jays batted around the lineup. Adam Lind had a 2-for-4 day with a solo shot, finishing with 3 RBIs. Travis Snider showed improve plate discipline, walking twice and scoring two runs even without getting a hit. Everyone on the lineup contributed tonight – even defensive replacement Johnny Mac, who drove in Bautista in the 8th with a sac fly.
Speaking of Bautista, the newly anointed Jays clubhouse leader didn’t take very long to set the example. In one swing leading off the 5th, Jose Bautista responded to the regression police (myself included) with a booming solo shot off Pavano; he would end up going 3-for-4 with a walk on the day. Will he get to 35 home runs this year? I still don’t think so, but I would love to be proven wrong here. It can only be a good thing for the Blue Jays if Bautista’s 2010 was not an outlier, but the real deal. Pavano did not make it through an out in the 5th inning, allowing 7 earned runs (8 overall) before he was removed from Jeff Manship, who really did no better, allowing two runs. By the end of the 5th inning, the Jays were up 10-0: the rout was on. The wave started in the Rogers Centre, drunkeness ensued in the late innings as rally towels and beverages fell onto field, and not even a key error from – you guessed it – Edwin Encarnacion couldn’t dampen what had been a great show of offense.
Then there was the pitching. Ricky Romero entered today’s game with an abysmal 7.91 ERA in the spring, but proved that spring stats really count for nothing as he went 6 dominant innings before running out of gas in the 7th. The lefty struck out 7 in 6.1 innings, walking none and allowed just one earned run (3 overall from the E5) on just over 92 pitches. Before the 7th inning, Romero had only given up just 4 hits, navigating the Twin’s lineup with relative ease and getting a number of swinging misses with his offspeed stuff. If Edwin Encarnacion hadn’t made the bobble in the 7th, Romero might have gotten out of it unscathed as well; despite that, it was a hell of a start, with Romero receiving a deserved standing ovation as he was removed from his 1st career opening start. For me, the most impressive thing about the start was that Romero never shied away from the strike zone – even as he was tiring, he didn’t walk a batter, challenging them head-on instead. If he can maintain this type of control through the season, it’s a good sign of things to come. The relief corps consisting of Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor and Carlos Villanueva finished up the game with clean innings, and the Jays were off to a 1-0 start.
In a number of ways, this game was important to the Blue Jays season – not only was it the first game of the year, it might be one of the only ones that had a sold-out crowd in attendance. Even though it’s just 1 out of 162, and the Jays are expected to hit their lumps this season, they came out and gave immediate answers to all of the concerns that might have come with the team out of spring training. In short, it was a table-setter, and a temporary reminder of what this team can be capable of. The Blue Jays might not realistically challenge for a playoff spot this season in the AL East, but for 3 hours on a chilly Toronto evening, they looked like world-beaters.