The Blue Jays were always going to be able to score runs in 2021, the easy analysis concluded.
But were they going to be able to stop them?
On a Yankee Stadium opening day with so much promise — both for the rising Jays and the game itself — the answer was a resounding yes.
While the offence had just enough moments, the defence ruled the day as the young and hungry Jays started the 2021 season in style, with a thrilling 3-2 extra-inning win over their AL East rival New York Yankees.
Randal Grichuk provided the go-ahead run in the 10th with an RBI double that cleared the head of Aaron Judge in right field to drive in Jonathan Davis, who started the inning at second base, thanks to baseball’s modified extra-innings rules.
But the hero very well might have been reliever Julian Merryweather who, with Aaron Judge on second, was money in the bottom of the 10th, blasting 99-mph fastballs to strike out the Yankees side to earn the save.
The victory was set up by a solid start from lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, who gave up just two runs in 5.1 innings, and was sealed by the sharp defence that was such a glaring weakness of this team in 2020.
“That was our goal from the beginning,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of the assignment to reduce errors and be more responsible in the field. “Rightly so, the talk in the off-season was about our offence, but I told our team that for us to win and get to the playoffs, it’s going to be pitching and defence and we did that today.
“It’s great to see all the hard work paid off in the first game already. Our defence was outstanding.”
The highlights were many.
Over at third base, Cavan Biggio made moves to his left and to his right and showed plenty of arm to make the plays to first. Routine and otherwise, he’s already the steadiest figure at the hot corner since Josh Donaldson left town.
(Speaking of Donaldson, the man who came to the Jays in return for the former MVP via trade with Cleveland was none other than Merryweather.)
And how about the cool Biggio showed in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line, displaying savvy and execution to gun down Mike Tauchman at home and prevent the possible game-winner.
“I think it’s a little bit of both (instinct and talent),” Montoyo said of Biggio’s potential game-saver. “He made a lot of good plays today. He’s just a hard worker and it’s paying off.”
At least as impressive was the work of Vlad Guerrero Jr. at first. Trimmed down and committed to being a better defender, Guerrero made a handful of slick snags at first to complement the work of his infield compadres.
And at second base, Marcus Semien made a sensational play to save at least one run by going deep into the hole to snare a DJ LeMahieu rocket.
The biggest play of them all, however, was probably an inning-ending play in the seventh to quell what could have been a lethal Yankees rally. Reliever David Phelps had loaded the bases with one out in a 2-2 tie, but was able to induce a Biggio-to-Semien-to-Vlad double play to avoid disaster.
From that standpoint, it was certainly a solid debut for the Jays, who booted away far too many opportunities in 2020. That prompted general manager Ross Atkins to jump to the offensive on defence and it became a focus of the winter, on and off the field.
The other part of defence — specifically pitching command — was another issue, however. The Jays allowed the lead runner to get on in each of the final four innings, which led to some tense moments.
But first Jordan Romano and then Merryweather both came through with some money relief to get the Jays’ season off with a win.
“Like I always say, hard work pays off and we had to get better defensively,” said right fielder Teoscar Hernandez, who made a nice running catch himself. “Now that we’ve got some experience and worked hard, it becomes easier in the game.”
Speaking of Hernandez, the Jays MVP for 2020 picked up where he left off with a mammoth home run in the fifth inning and a pair of singles.
As Montoyo’s cleanup hitter, Hernandez served notice of his intentions when he took a Gerrit Cole offering 430 feet for the game-tying solo shot in the sixth inning.
“I see a lineup that is pretty good balance,” Hernandez said of the Jays offence. “We’ve got speed. We’ve got power. We’ve got guys who can make a lot of contact.
“We’ve been working on not swinging-and-missing too much and that’s going to make this lineup special.”
Ace versus ace is one of the many treats that almost always line up on opening day when everything is fresh and new.
A pair of top-four candidates for the American League Cy Young Award put on quite a show in the Bronx with contrasting styles of pitching brilliance.
The power of the Yankees’ Cole up against the crafty finesse of the Jays’ Ryu delivered and then some, with each man having one pitch he’d kill to have back.
For Ryu, it was a two-run homer to Gary Sanchez in the second inning. For Cole, Hernandez’s solo bomb was the only real blemish.
Cole went five complete, allowing five hits and two runs while deploying his fastball to help strike out eight. Ryu countered with 5.1 innings, four hits and two runs allowed with five strikeouts.
What a thrill it was for Merryweather to earn his first career save at Yankee Stadium with the game on the line and in a situation his manager called “the highest leverage possible.”
Mixing a fastball that hit 99 mph and a changeup that clocked in at 70, Merryweather was one strike away from an immaculate inning.
Montoyo had a premonition prior to the game that he might need someone in the 10th and a fellow coach suggested Merryweather. How did that work out?
Already Merryweather, who made his big-league debut last summer, has the aggressive mentality that defines the Jays bullpen.
“We know we’re going to play a big role in closing out ball games,” Merryweather said. “Our offence is gonna bring it, our starters are gonna keep us in it … then our job is to close the door.
“As a bullpen, we have a pretty strong mentality that we’re gonna go out there and be aggressive.”
When Guerrero puts full barrel on ball, the results are explosive. His second-inning single exited the bat at 114.1 mph, the highest velocity hit allowed by Cole since Statcast came into business in 2015 … The Jays got the early jump thanks to back-to-back-to-back singles in the second inning that highlighted the danger in the middle of the order. Hernandez got the first one followed by Guerrero’s rocket and the RBI effort from Lourdes Gurriel Jr. That’s going to be a meaty trio for any opposing pitcher to face … The victory was Montoyo’s 100th career win as Jays manager and improved the team’s all-time opening-day record to 23-22 … The Jays bullpen served up some hold-your-breath moments with both Phelps in the seventh and Rafael Dolis in the eighth getting away with Yankees runners stranded on base
AROUND THE BASES
Opening day marks the deadline for final roster decisions and the Jays had a flurry of late moves to get out of the way before the noon cutoff. The last two players to make the team were pitchers Merryweather and Joel Payamps with the notable cuts being catcher Reese McGuire and infielder Breyvic Valera, who were both designated for assignment … The final 26-man roster was pitcher-heavy as expected with 14 as well as six infielders, four outfielders and two catchers … Though none were a surprise, the Jays loaded up the injury list as well, a group that included George Springer (Grade 1 oblique strain), Nate Pearson (adductor strain), Robbie Ray (elbow) and Thomas Hatch (elbow.)