Before the curtain-raiser, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona joked about the effects that these sorts of games will have on a baseball manager over the course of a 162-game season.
Nervous with anticipation, he’d slept all of 2 1/2 hours before reporting to the Rogers Centre for the season opener against the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Not that I look good today, but at the end of the season, I know how much worse I’ll look than this,” he said. “Sleep? It’s gone.”
One team executed nearly flawlessly, the other’s execution appeared to be sabotaged by jitters, and to the surprise of the hushed crowd of 48,857 at the Rogers Centre, the rebuilding Indians played with the poise of veterans for a 4-1 victory over the Blue Jays.
“I know everybody is disappointed,” said Jays manager John Gibbons. “But we’re not.They just played a heck of a game, and they pitched really well. It turned into the Asdrubal Cabrera show, to be honest with you. The big double play he turned, it could have been a game-changer.”
Cabrera, Cleveland’s shortstop, started a pair of key double plays and hit a two-run homer off knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Against starting pitcher Justin Masterson, the Jays left two runners aboard in the first, two more in the second, and scored just once after loading the bases in the third inning with none out.
Midway through the third inning and the Indians up 2-0, Masterson had already thrown more than 60 pitches and appeared on the verge of being knocked out of the game. That’s when Cabrera knocked down Adam Lind’s searing one-hopper and flipped it to second baseman Jason Kipnis to trigger a double play. Toronto’s only run scored on the play, and so reprieved, Masterson retired 11 consecutive Jays before exiting after six innings, allowing three hits.
“We played a really clean game,” Francona said. “The defence showed up and Cabrera’s play was spectacular. The whole game swung on the one play.”
The Indians got six outs with standout defence. Cabrera also turned a Melky Cabrera liner in the first inning into a double play, getting Jose Reyes jumping off first base too far. Kipnis made a diving stop of Edwin Encarnacion’s would-be single at the beginning of the sixth. And right fielder Drew Stubbs slid on the artificial turf to grab Reyes’s flare down the line at the start of the eighth inning.
On the other side, while failing to convert runners in scoring position, the Jays had the ball squirt out of their gloves on routine plays, missed a cutoff man with two out to allow a runner to advance to second, and watched helplessly from the field as catcher J.P. Arencibia struggled to handle Dickey’s knuckleball.
Trailing and in need of base runners, centre fielder Colby Rasmus started the fourth and seventh innings with strikeouts, and struck out for a third time to end the game.
After Lind’s double-play grounder in the third, Arencibia struck out with a runner on third, sending him back to his defensive position. He was charged with three passed balls as Dickey’s knuckleball broke sharply, and another ball thrown in the dirt got past him for a wild pitch.
Cleveland’s hitters approach Dickey patiently, and he allowed five hits and four walks in six innings, with three of the four runs earned.
Two of the passed balls came in the second inning as Michael Brantley singled and advanced to third on the miscues, scoring on a grounder. Mark Reynolds drew a walk and went to second on a passed ball, scoring on a two-out single by Stubbs, the No. 9 hitter, for the two-run lead.
The Blue Jays are hoping for a strong start to keep alive the excitement stoked by off-season moves. Toronto ranked in the bottom 10 of the major leagues for attendance during the past four seasons, and the team has failed to recapture the American League East since 1993, finishing higher than third in just one season.
In the off-season, manager John Farrell left for his dream job in Boston, where he had previously worked as a pitching coach during Francona’s two-championship tenure with the Red Sox. Gibbons replaced him, and with a pair of blockbuster trades plus the free agent acquisition of Melky Cabrera, fans have sensed a turnaround in 2013. Jays president Paul Beeston said during a radio interview before the game that the club could reach three million in attendance if there are meaningful games in September.
For that to happen, they’ll need to play sharper games than the one that opened the season on Tuesday.