Sunday, April 3, 2011

Blue Jays Kick Off 2011 Season

Alas, the dust has settled, the pageantry and hoopla of Opening Weekend but a fond memory for both the 100,000-and-change that crammed themselves into an electric Rogers Centre, as well as those of us watching from the comfort of our living rooms.

With a day off tomorrow before hosting Oakland for a three-game series, let's look back and recap the weekend's events: the auspicious ups, the discouraging downs, and Juan Rivera/Adam Lind's mutual failure to execute on Sunday. But we'll get to that latter issue in due time.

Hosting the Minnesota Twins, the Blue Jays started their season in ceremonious fashion, with newly-appointed ace Ricky Romero leading the troops to an emphatic 13-3 victory in front of a sellout crowd on Friday night.

After Romero breezed through the top half of the first, the offense wasted no time getting to work. Consecutive singles by Rajai Davis and Yunel Escobar precipitated a double steal -- punctuating the beginning of the John Farrell era -- followed by a walk to Jose Bautista loaded the bases for Adam Lind, who brought home the Jays' first run of the year when he was promptly plunked in the shoulder by a Carl Pavano fastball.

A pair of sac flies from Aaron Hill and Edwin Encarnacion, followed by an error by Twins' second-baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka on a Travis Snider grounder gave the Jays a comfortable 4-0 lead heading into the second.

Needless to say, the home-town boys never looked back.

Romero gave an inspiring performance, issuing only one earned run over 6.1 innings of work while striking out seven.

On the other side of the ball, Lind and reigning homerun king Bautista each contributed solo shots, but the star of the night was rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia who, emulating his MLB debut last August, belted two homeruns and a triple to finish the night 3/4 with 5 RBIs.

Relievers Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor, and Carlos Villanueva -- making his Blue Jays' debut -- combined for 2.2 scoreless innings to end the game.

The following day, with substantially fewer butts in the seats, the Blue Jays sent out rookie Kyle Drabek to toe the slab in search of his first major league victory.

From the first pitch, Drabek set the tone for entire afternoon, hurling a game that was reminiscent, dare I say it, of the man he was traded for.

Drabek emphatically struck out the side in the first, and carried a no-hitter into the sixth until Denard Span spoiled the youngster's bid with a solid single over the head of Yunel Escobar. His electric fastball, complimented by a bewildering bender kept the Twins off-balance all afternoon, and the only run they were able to muster was came by way of a walk, stolen base, and some effectively placed ground ball outs. The rookie finished the day with seven strikeouts over his seven innings of work while walking three and surrendering only the lone run and Span single.

His batterymate, Jose Molina, who got the nod over Arencibia, much to the chagrin of the Toronto faithful, vindicated his manager's choice with a third-inning solo shot that got the offense in motion.

After the Twins' tied the game at 1-1 in the fourth, Jayson Nix -- acquired last week from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for cash considerations -- wasted no time endearing himself to his new teammates (and fans) with a solo shot off Twins' starter Francisco Liriano in the home half of the inning to give the Jays the lead.

The Jays put the game away in the bottom of the fifth; after an Edwin Encarnacion infield single scored Bautista and advanced Lind to second, Travis Snider -- pinch-hitting for Juan Rivera in another savvy strategical move by Farrell -- doubled to the right-field corner to plate a pair and extend the lead to 5-1.

The Jays would tag on another run in the eighth on an Aaron Hill sac fly to effectively seal the Twins' fate.

In the weekend's finale, the Jays sent Brett Cecil -- who struggled with diminished velocity for much of Spring Training -- to the mound, facing the Twins' sinkerballer extraordinaire, Nick Blackburn.

After striking out the side in the first and breezing through the next inning, Cecil surrendered a bomb to Danny Valencia in the third to give the Twins their first lead of the weekend.

The Jays tied it up in the bottom of the fourth on an error by Nishioka on an Encarnacion chopper, but the Twins got to Cecil in the fifth. After a single and a walk, Cecil hesitated on his throw to Lind on a Drew Butera sacrifice bunt, loading the bases. Matt Tolbert promptly singled to left, scoring Jason Kubel, but a perfect throw from Snider nailed a trailing Valencia trying to extend the lead. Nishioka would end up singling home another run before Cecil got Delmon Young to pop out to shallow right and induced a fly-out from Justin Morneau.

The Jays would reduce the deficit to one thanks to a Bautista blast in the sixth.

But with a chance to tie the game and possibly take the lead the following inning, the Jays couldn't execute. With runners on second and third with only one out, Juan Rivera grounded out meekly to pitcher Matt Capps. Bautista then lined out hard to centre-field to end the threat.

Jon Rauch, the Blue Jays' interim closer with Frank Francisco on the disabled list, saw his first action of the season in the ninth. But the gargantuan righty yielded a towering solo shot to Denard Span in his one inning of work, extending the Jays' deficit to two heading into their last at-bat.

The bottom of the ninth made for some serious drama.

Snider led off the inning with an infield single, just beating the throw from Nishioka who made a great diving stab on a ball in the hole. After Arencibia flied out to the warning track -- a recurring theme for the catcher on the afternoon -- Mike McCoy blooped a clutch double to shallow right, barely avoiding the tag at second. Yunel Escobar then ripped a sacrifice fly to centre, scoring Snider on a ball that almost escaped the reach of Span. But after consecutive (and heart-stopping) walks to Rivera and Bautista, Lind uncharacteristically offered at a first-pitch breaking ball from Nathan, and grounded out to Cuddyer at first to end the game.

Overall, the weekend was a huge success. The games were exciting, entertaining, and there was no denying the unmistakable presence of collective hope in the Rogers Centre (and, of course, in Ottawa living rooms). While a sweep would've been nice, extrapolating this success rate to 162 games produces a record of 108-54, which ain't too shabby. Either way, it's going to be one hell of a ride.

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