The cheers rose in intensity Friday night as the Toronto Blue Jays started to line up along the third baseline during the pregame festivities, the majority of the packed house waving white towels that signified anything but surrender.
Optimism reigns supreme early in the baseball calendar and so it is for the Blue Jays, a year ago a flawed team in desperate search of relevancy this season with much the same lineup.
Down in the bullpen behind the left-field fence at Rogers Centre, almost isolated from the fanfare unfolding on the field for Toronto’s regular-season home opener against the New York Yankees, Dustin McGowan completed his warmup tosses.
McGowan is the feel-good story of the Blue Jays spring, the oft-injured veteran who has battled back from two shoulder surgeries to win a starting spot in Toronto’s dicey starting rotation.
“He’s defied all the odds, really,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said before the game. “There are so many guys that that’s happened to and just disappeared.”
The Blue Jays are hoping that the 32-year-old right-hander will be able to remain healthy and play a key role in helping to establish the rotation as a defining force in 2014.
Before a sold-out gathering of 48,197, it was not the beginning that McGowan was hoping for, his appearance all too brief and rocky in what amounted to a 7-3 New York victory in what was the first of a three-game weekend set.
McGowan was lucky to escape the first inning with his team down just two after surrendering five hits.
Melky Cabrera got one back for Toronto with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the inning.
And then the Blue Jays scored twice more in the second for a all-too-brief 3-2 lead after Jonathan Diaz singled through the left side with the bases loaded.
But McGowan gave those runs right back in the third, the key blow a two-run double by Yangervis Solarte that restored the Yankees a 4-3 advantage.
McGowan was yanked after that, having surrendered four runs off eight hits over 2.2 innings and the Yankees, who won 14 of 19 games over Toronto last year, would continue their mastery over their American League East rival.
The game had all the trappings of a home opener – a large, boisterous crowd that routinely performed the wave, a former star in Roy Halladay throwing out the first pitch and a crazed fan clad only in shorts who dashed onto the field from the seats along the first baseline during the sixth inning.
And the contest also featured an intriguing pitching matchup pitting McGowan against Masahiro Tanaka.
Tanaka is the vaunted Japanese import who was making his Major League Baseball debut after signing a seven-year, $155-million (U.S.) pact with the Yankees over the winter.
Tanaka went 24-0 playing pro in Japan last season and it appeared that the entire Japanese media contingent that covered him back home all made the trek to Toronto to record his first MLB outing.
Tanaka certainly delivered on all the promise, handcuffing Toronto on three runs off six hits over seven innings while striking out eight to record his first MLB victory.
Yankee manager Joe Girardi said what impressed him most about his rookie is how he regrouped after giving up three runs in the first two innings.
"I think it's really impressive," Girardi said. "You think about what he's had to deal with all spring training, the attention that's been on him -- covers of magazines, everywhere he goes people want to know, when's he pitching. I mean that started February 14th, when's his first start?
"I think he handled it great."
The only downside to the evening was the injury to first baseman Mark Texeira, who left the game in the second inning with a strained right hamstring. Girardi said the Yankees are not yet sure the extent of the injury.
To the dismay of the Blue Jays, much of the pregame banter focused not on the pageantry of the home opener but on a spicy article that had surfaced late Thursday night on FoxSports.
The story, as reported by Ken Rosenthal, said that several Blue Jay players had discussed deferring portions of their salaries if it meant clearing enough payroll for the club to make a serious bid to sign free-agent pitcher Ervin Santana.
The Blue Jays were in the hunt to sign Santana, and in fact thought they had a one-year, $14-million deal in place last month to secure the services of the veteran right-hander.
But it all fell through at the last moment after the Atlanta Braves entered the picture, desperate for pitching help after Kris Medlen was lost for the season with an arm injury.
The Braves made Santana a similar offer and Santana, preferring to pitch in the National League, readily accepted.
The new details of players willing to offer up their own money to bring Santana to Toronto, as outlined in Rosenthal’s story, suggests that the Blue Jays, owned by Rogers Communications, lacked the financial wherewithal to be able to pursue high-profile free agents on their own terms.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos would not directly comment on whether or not the FoxSports story was accurate, but said it is silly to suggest the Blue Jays don’t have the deep pockets to go after players that they want.
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