The official name of the thing is Tropicana Field, but Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has his own appellation: “The House of Horrors.”
As the Texan dryly explained earlier this week, “weird things happen down here.”
Yes, they do.
Gibbons was referring, above everything, to the late-game high jinks that often seem to occur in the domed stadium, but that’s not the only time weirdness reigns.
In the third inning of Thursday’s game between the visiting Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays, David DeJesus hit a playable line drive to right field off Brandon Morrow.
So far, so good.
Then the Jays’ Jose Bautista appeared to hesitate as he judged the flight of the rapidly falling ball, and, as he slid in to try and make the catch, he missed the ball.
DeJesus scooted all the way to third.
The next hitter, Desmond Jennings, hit a high chopper on a first-pitch slider that bounced over a helpless Brett Lawrie.
From there it squirmed into shallow left field past shortstop Ryan Goins, who was in hot pursuit.
DeJesus cantered in to score, Jennings ended up on second.
Then Ben Zobrist singled on a bouncer to right to score Jennings, Evan Longoria followed up with another first-pitch hit, and James Loney hit into a double-play to score Zobrist.
Two crummy bounces, three runs and a sense of mounting dread – all in the space of eight pitches.
“That third inning was tough. There’s a ball that might have got in the lights for Jose a little bit, and ended up being a triple. Chopper here, chopper there, Longoria reached out and put a good swing on a good pitch ... it’s one of those things where you feel like you threw better than the end result,” Morrow said.
Tampa had manufactured a run earlier to lead 1-0, and while the Jays narrowed the gap to two runs in the fourth against winning pitcher Chris Archer – a Dioner Navarro sacrifice fly scored Jose Bautista (who had walked), then Brett Lawrie’s infield hit scored Adam Lind, who had doubled earlier (like Bautista, Jennings dove to make a tough catch but missed and got up gingerly) – the die was cast.
“It can explode on you pretty quick, I mean, it’s the big leagues,” Gibbons said afterward.
Evan Longoria’s massive three-run homer off reliever Esmil Rogers in the seventh just emphasized the fact already known to all.
The Blue Jays return home for Friday’s opener at the Rogers Centre with an eminently respectable 2-2 record, and a blueprint for success.
The formula is obvious: If the Toronto starters are able to demonstrate effectiveness and the defence holds, they have the bats to do some damage.
In both their wins in the opening series, starters Drew Hutchison and Mark Buehrle were able to go scoreless through five (and in Buehrle’s case, through eight-plus).
And balls like the one that Jennings hit usually found someone’s glove.
In their losses, R.A. Dickey and Morrow contrived to give up hits and runs in bunches in the early going.
Morrow, who looked strong in his final spring outing, wasn’t terrible in this game – beyond the eight-pitch sequence that blew the game open, he allowed one run on three hits, walked a batter and struck out four.
“Really I felt good all game, that was a tough one where you feel you pitched better than the line. But to their credit, they didn’t give away any at-bats the whole game. They worked counts, they weren’t driving the ball, but they found holes when guys were on and got their runs.”
Gibbons had a different assessment of his right-hander after the game, saying “I thought he laboured tonight compared to what he did in [a pre-season game in] Montreal the other day.
“What I liked is I thought he finished strong, and that’s a key. We still have to monitor him, because he’s coming off those injuries last year. He battled, but he wasn’t hitting on his off-speed pitches and stuff,” Gibbons said.
It’s always hazardous to draw conclusions from the opening week of the season, but for a pitcher coming back from a lengthy injury absence in 2013 (he had nerve damage in his forearm), Morrow demonstrated good velocity, hitting 96 miles an hour on the radar gun, and used his change-up to strike out Longoria – the Rays’ most dangerous bat – looking in the first.
In a sense, this was preordained.
Toronto hasn’t won a series in Tropicana Field since 2007 – a span of 20 series.
“I think a split’s good coming out of here. It’s tough, and the first series of the year – we would obviously have loved to have won this game, but it’s still a positive to come in and we played well for the most part,” Morrow said.
Now the focus turns to the New York Yankees and another opportunity to nudge their record above .500 in their first series at home.
“We’re playing good baseball ... a couple of games blew up on us but we’ve been playing good baseball,” Gibbons said. “It seems like we’ve been down in Florida forever. Actually, we really have. It’ll be good to get home in front of a friendly crowd.”
In baseball’s most competitive division, they’ll hope that their own house only reserves its horrors for the opposition.