Blue Jays home opener debuts Rogers Centre's new look to fans and players
For the entirety of the Blue Jays’ impressive pre-game, close-to-an-hour ceremonies … then on into the first four Tigers hitters, it was a dream opening night that played out at the renovated (Phase 1) Rogers Centre. Performing in front of a packed house of enthusiastic fans. The Jays promised for the 2023 home season by a fundamentally sound, professional roster with a promise of solid defence, relentless offence (no jacket required) and opportunistic base-running.
However, early on, an unwelcome and unscripted reality set in with No. 1 starter Alek Manoah struggling for the second time in his three starts. Even though all three of his starts have resulted in team wins, on Tuesday, he worked just 4-1/3 innings, marred by a second-inning, three run bomb by third-baseman Nick Maton. He threw 94 pitches, with another ball the result of a pitch-clock violation.
No, it was not Manoah’s night. In fact, if this game belonged to one player, it was newcomer Kevin Kiermaier who, in a former life with the Rays, used to regularly do to the Jays what he did to the Tigers this night. It’s as if the reconfiguration of the outfield wall, with the 50-foot stretch in dead-centre, lowered from 10 to 8-feet, was designed specifically with the acrobatic Kiermaier’s defensive abilities in mind. It didn’t take long for speculation on if he would be able to use the new dimensions to his advantage, became reality. It was just four batters in.
Leading off the second inning in a run-less game, Tiger DH, Kerry Carpenter launched a high drive to the left of straightaway centre, with what didn’t initially look like, but turned out to be, home-run distance. Kiermaier tracked the ball back to the wall, leaped and pulled it back for the first out.
“We watched him do it against us for a long time,” manager John Schneider said. “So to have that on our side is awesome. It kind of got us going a little bit.”
Kiermaier had even been talking with teammates this spring about perhaps going over the 8-foot wall to pull one back into plays as soon as he heard about the non-symmetrical dimensions.
“The guys were kind of laughing in the dugout,” Schneider said. “Right out of the chute, he’s jumping over the wall. There’s something to it. You have to be kind of good at it and he’s good at it. Pretty ironic that it happened that early.”
Then three innings later, he did it with the bat. Leading off the fifth inning vs. righthander Matt Manning, trailing by a run Kiermaier yanked a line-drive home run to right field to tie the game at three. Destined to become a crowd favourite, the first impression he made on the home fans was remarkable. Then George Springer going back-to-back, added a go-ahead homer for a lead the Jays never surrendered.
“I’ve been trying to take that next step as an offensive player,” Kiermaier said. “For me, in the nine-hole, I’m not trying to do too much. I might hit for power every now and then, but my game-plan is to get on base for the top of the order. These guys believe in me and they’re bringing the best out of me. I just want to give it right back. This is so fun to be a part of.”
But back to the pre-game festivities. After scoreboard videos highlighting the team’s new faces and the stadium’s new face with its diverse outfield neighbourhoods; following the award presentations of a Gold Glove to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Silver Slugger to Alejandro Kirk, Jordan Romano was presented with his Tip O’Neill Award as Canada’s outstanding player in 2022.
The pre-game amping up of the crowd was capped by the soon-to-be inducted Hall-of-Famer Fred McGriff throwing a perfect strike with the ceremonial first-pitch. Then with the rolling waves of cheers, from the sellout crowd of more than 42,000 sweeping down from all corners, the optimism of the season was ultimately rewarded.
“It’s going to be fun with this energy, it’s contagious,” Schneider added. “You talk to the guys in our bullpen, it’s pretty wild. It’s nice to have those fans out there.”
There are a few things that need cleaning up before the season gets too far along. Examples? Brandon Belt failed to go first to third on an Alejandro Kirk drive off the fence. Maybe he saw a stop sign from coach Luis Rivera, but it likely cost the Jays a run. On another occasion, Daulton Varsho stopped at third as he was being waved in by Luis Rivera. He would have scored. Then there’s Manoah’s 11 bases-on-balls in 14.2 innings this season. That is concerning for Schneider, but correctible. The bottom line is always on the scoreboard at the end of the game and three of the Jays’ seven wins this season have been on the backs of dramatic rallies, coming from behind.
Meanwhile the first-place Rays, playing an array of teams that they should be beating, simply keep taking care of business while the AL East continues to prove it’s the toughest and most balanced in baseball.