The story plot came with everything but the fantasy ending for the biased Rogers Centre crowd.
Canadian third baseman Brett Lawrie arrived for his 2013 debut in characteristic hyper-energetic style, back-slapping teammates in the clubhouse before the game, making a couple of sterling defensive plays in the midst of it, ultimately coming to the plate with two runners aboard in the ninth inning, the Blue Jays trailing by two runs and some 16,000 ready to roar.
However, against right-hander Addison Reed, Lawrie mustered only a sacrifice fly, and that capped the scoring in a 4-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday night.
Lawrie had missed the first 13 games of the season on the disabled list, nursing a strained oblique muscle back to health in the warmth of Dunedin, Fla. With his activation, the Blue Jays stabilized their defence with Lawrie at third, Munenori Kawasaki at shortstop and Maicer Izturis returning to his comfort zone at second base.
“He brings a lot of energy. Everybody likes him. He's a ball of fire," manager John Gibbons said.
Lawrie went halfway to second to grab a Dayan Viciedo grounder in the fourth inning, and barehanded an Alex Rios chopper in the eighth for a final out.
“He made some great plays over there at third base,” Gibbons said after the game. “Tremendous range, good arm, yeah, it was good to see him out there.”
Kawasaki, who became the first Japanese position player to appear for the Jays when he replaced the injured Jose Reyes during the weekend series in Kansas City, overshadowed his new infield partner with a headlong dive to snare Conor Gillaspie’s slicing liner in the seven inning, immediately after Paul Konerko’s solo homer off starter Josh Johnson had tied the game, 2-2. When the crowd stood to applaud, Kawasaki responded with a respectful bow. (Likewise, after a victory in the team lineup, he’ll combine a high-five with a bow for each teammate).
Jose Bautista, who’d played third in Kansas City, missed a second consecutive game with a sore back and ear infection. Gibbons said before the game that Bautista would be available to pinch-hit, but he elected to use Rajai Davis in the seventh inning to hit for centre fielder Colby Rasmus against left-hander Hector Santiago.
While Rasmus is generally weaker against lefties, this season he is 2-for-6 with a pair of doubles, and he had hit a solo homer in the second inning to straightaway centre against Chicago right-hander Dylan Alexrod.
Gibbons’ move backfired in several ways.
First, Davis struck out. Second, when Davis went to the field, he played in right and Emilio Bonifacio shuttled to centre in Rasmus’s place.
In the ninth inning, relief pitcher Steve Delabar issued a pair of leadoff walks to Adam Dunn and Konerko, and with one out, Viciedo hit a line drive that Bonifacio, playing shallow, misplayed by hesitating. The ball fell well in front of the warning track but behind him for a double, allowing pinch runner DeWayne Wise to score the go-ahead run, 3-2. Rasmus would likely have made the play – in the first inning, he had easily tracked down Jeff Keppinger’s overhead shot at the warning track.
Rather than two out with runners on first and second, the Sox had one out with runners on second and third and the lead. Hector Gimenez then lifted a Darren Oliver pitch to Davis in right, for a sacrifice fly. If he had a reasonable chance to cut down Konerko running from third, the throw wide left negated the opportunity, and Chicago led 4-2.
J.P. Arencibia’s solo homer gave Johnson a 2-1 lead in the sixth. While Arencibia entered the game tied with Rasmus for third-most strikeouts in the AL, 19, he vaulted into the top-10 in total bases with 33 on five homers and four doubles among his 14 hits.
The White Sox got their first run in the second inning as Johnson missed the strike zone with his fastball temporarily. He gave up a pair of singles and a walk to load the bases before throwing a wild pitch on a two-strike count to the No. 9 hitter, Gimenez, allowing a run to score.
Otherwise Johnson pitched masterfully, allowing four hits and two runs in seven innings, striking out eight. In his previous start, made in 2 C weather in Detroit, he had strained to reach 90 mph with his fastball. On Tuesday, he threw the fastball consistently at 93-94 mph, mixing in a hard breaking slider, curve and changeup to record six of the first 11 outs with strikeouts.
“More aggressive. I got [the pitches] through the zone and to the catcher, and that was the focus for this start,” he said.
With his pitch count elevated due to the strikeouts, Johnson induced contact to record eight consecutive outs before fanning Jeff Keppinger to start the sixth inning. He’d retired 10 straight and led 2-1 until falling behind in the count, three balls and no strikes, to Paul Konerko, the first batter of the seventh inning. Arencibia, the catcher, visited the mound and Konerko deposited Johnson’s next pitch, a fastball, into the left-field bleachers to tie the game 2-2.
“It ran back over the middle,” Johnson said. “I wish I could have that one back.”
Notes: When Bautista returns to right field, Bonifacio could be odd-man out, leaving a hole in the leadoff spot. Gibbons said Melky Cabrera could be moved up from second in the order. ... Gibbons wants Lawrie to "play smart" in deference to the oblique strain. He lost a month last season with a similar injury, and this season had been out of action since March 7. Lawrie, however, plays the game intensely and said that he felt no problems moving quickly to his right and left for ground balls in Florida. ... Getting comfortable with Kawasaki is one of his first goals. “You like to be on the same page,” Lawrie said. “Just seeing how far he can go to his right.”