When Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Scott Kazmir spun and fired the ball to nobody at second base on an attempted pickoff play, you kind of got the sense early that the baseball gods were smiling on the Toronto Blue Jays.
The red-hot Blue Jays had already rolled the dice heading into the contest, opting to send Triple-A call-up Liam Hendriks to the mound to try and tame the team with the best record in Major League Baseball.
Kazmir’s embarrassing gaffe in the third inning was just the capper for the Blue Jays (27-22), who would go on to post their fourth consecutive victory with a tight 3-2 win over the A’s (30-18) in the first of a three-game weekend set at Rogers Centre on Friday night.
The American League East first-placed Blue Jays have now won nine of their past 11.
Hendriks had been tearing it up in Buffalo with the Bisons, sporting a 5-0 Triple-A record with a sparkling 1.48 earned run average, the reason why the Blue Jays wanted to give him a look-see.
Toronto had been without a fifth starter since banishing Dustin McGowan to his more comfortable setting in the bullpen. And Friday seemed to be the appropriate time to see how Hendriks’ Triple-A licks would play out in the big leagues.
Still, there was something off-putting about that 6.06 ERA that Hendriks wore during his previous MLB experience with the Minnesota Twins, lending an air of mystery to his outing against the A’s.
Steve Tolleson, who started at second for the Blue Jays, no doubt lifted much of the pressure Hendriks was feeling at the game’s outset, knocking a two-run home run in the second inning that moved Toronto in front 2-0.
For Tolleson, the dinger was his first of the season.
The Blue Jays tagged on a third run in a rather odd fashion in the third that began with Kevin Pillar driving a line-hugging ground ball down the right side for a double.
With Jose Reyes at the plate, the pickoff play was on – or at least it was in the mind of Kazmir. The lefty whirled and threw the ball to second in an attempt to catch Pillar, who was taking a decent lead off the bag.
Trouble was, neither Oakland shortstop Jed Lowrie or second baseman Nick Punto moved an inch toward the bag to cover the throw, and the ball sailed harmlessly into centre field.
Pillar, who still dove back into second base on the play, finally picked himself up and hustled his way to third base.
The error that was charged to Kazmir was costly as Pillar would come home to make the score 3-0 after Reyes, during a nice eight-pitch at-bat, grounded out to the right side.
Hendriks is a no-nonsense strike thrower who can bring a fastball in the lower 90s and he did his job, aided and abetted by some solid defensive play by his mates.
Infield nomad Brett Lawrie, who started at third base, plucked a hot grounder off the bat of Kyle Blanks in the third inning to begin a nice around-the-horn double play.
Toronto left fielder Melky Cabrera chipped in with a tricky running catch on a little flare off the bat of Derek Norris in the fifth.
It was a nervous inning for the Blue Jays that ended with Lowrie striking a long, loud fly ball to deep centre with the bases loaded that had the crowd of 21,007 holding its breath until Pillar ran under it for the third out.
The one costly miscue for Hendriks was a solo home-run shot he surrendered to Brandon Moss in the Oakland fourth that cut Toronto’s advantage to 3-1.
Hendriks departed the game with two out in the sixth inning and turned the game over to his bullpen, allowing one Oakland run off just three hits.
“The defence picked me up big time,” said the engaging Australian-born Hendriks. “Any time you’ve got guys like this behind you it gives that extra confidence so that you can go out there and you don’t have to try to strike everybody out.
“It’s just fantastic.”
Toronto reliever Casey Janssen came on in ninth to earn his sixth save, stranding Coco Crisp at third base after getting Jed Lowrie to ground out to end the game.
In order to make room on the roster for Hendriks, the Blue Jays severed their relationship with reliever Esmil Rogers, who was designated for assignment.
Hendriks was given the start in place of R.A. Dickey, who go to the mound for the second game against the A’s on Saturday.
With the weather forecast on Saturday calling for sunshine with temperatures approaching the mid-20s (Celsius), there is a good chance that the dome at Rogers Centre will be rolled back for the first time this season.
For the record, Dickey did not fare all that well last season pitching with the roof open, posting a 6.67 ERA with 16 home runs in nine starts.
In nine starts indoors at Rogers, Dickey’s ERA was 3.18 ERA and he allowed just seven homers.