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The Globe and Mail

In a fragile state, Jays get help from Hutchison in win over Rays

Toronto Blue Jays starter Drew Hutchison pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of an MLB game Tuesday, April 1, 2014 in St. Petersburg, Fla.


Sometimes life has a natural flow, but more often than not, you'd better be prepared to grind it out.

After nearly two years away from the Major Leagues, whatever scenario is good with Drew Hutchison.

Not long after the young Toronto Blue Jays righty strolled up the pitching mound at Tropicana Field, about an hour's drive from where he grew up, he understood the kind of game he was in for.

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"I wasn't sharp early at all, kind of grinding through that one, (catcher Dioner Navarro) did a great job back there," said Hutchison, whose parents were in attendance. "Nights like that, you just keep grinding and you find it. (Navarro) did a good job getting me there and I was able to throw some good off-speed stuff, threw some real good sliders when I was struggling to get the double-play ball (with two on in the second inning) and some other ones."

Staked to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first, Hutchison gave up a hit to Matt Joyce, the first Tampa Bay Rays batter he faced, but didn't give up another for 14 more hitters.

His pitching line: 5.1 innings, three hits, no runs, three walks, four strikeouts.

But this is about more than one game.

Hutchison displayed the sort of mettle that the Jays need from their pitchers nightly; faced with Rays' clean-up hitter Evan Longoria in the second inning, Hutchison started him off with a 91 mile-per-hour fastball for a called strike.

Then Longoria fouled off another fastball, and after going inside with his heater twice – the second nearly hit the Tampa third baseman – he froze him with an 86 mile-an-hour slider that was, well, big league.

After walking the next two batters, Hutchison got designated hitter Logan Forsythe to hit a come-backer to kick off a 1-4-3 double play that snuffed out the threat.

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Teammate Adam Lind, author of a three-run shot to centre field in the first inning that provided all the offence the Jays would need, volunteered this description of his 23-year-old teammate: "In control, not fazed by the situation, he looks like a vet out there, throws strikes."

"It's what we need," he added.

That much is certainly true.

If the Blue Jays are to draw any kind of water in the powerful American League East, the kind of performance Hutchison put out will have to be a regular delivery.

His is not the only rebuilt arm in the rotation – Hutchison had Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in his elbow and last started a major league game in June 15, 2012 – and his is not the only arm that will have to stay intact.

That Hutchison was lifted after allowing a single to Yunel Escobar, walking Joyce and getting the ever-dangerous Wil Myers to fly out to right had more to do with the stage of the season than any fear he was about to give the Rays a big inning.

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"When he gets rolling here he'll go deeper than that, but I thought that was plenty for that first game," said manager John Gibbons.

He continued on to say "the bullpen did their job," which is factually correct but doesn't tell the whole story.

Left-hander Aaron Loup succeeded Hutchison and immediately retired Ben Zobrist on a groundout, then baffled Longoria with his slider and fastball, all the latter could do was hit a soft liner off the end of the bat to Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion.

Then Steve Delabar gave up a single to Joyce, and a long double to Desmond Jennings, the Rays were on the board.

No biggie, Gibbons trotted out closer Sergio Santos - who gave up a lead-off double to Longoria that caromed off third baseman Brett Lawrie's glove, a run-scoring double to Jennings, a walk to catcher Ryan Hanigan (the base-runners promptly pulled off a double-steal).

In between, he struck out James Loney and Forsythe, and ultimately rang up former Jay Escobar with a devastating slider to end the game.

The bullpen did it's job, true, but not as convincingly as it could have.

Among the populous legion of things that must go right for the Jays to succeed this season: they will have to survive and even thrive without shortstop Jose Reyes, their leadoff catalyst.

Happily, this night will also be remembered for the fact his short-term replacement, 28-year-old minor-league journeyman Jonathan Diaz, got his first major league hit.

"Pretty amazing, especially with the team that drafted me, the team that I played so many years with," said Diaz, a Florida native whose wife and three daughters were able to make it to the game, as did much of his extended family.

The diminutive 28-year-old was playing in just his sixth Major League game, in his first at-bat he walked and scooted to third on a hit-and-run play, though he would advance no further.

In the third, Diaz recorded his first hit, gutting out an eight-pitch at-bat before smacking a fastball up the middle.

The hit came with two outs, and the result was Diaz' first big league RBI, Brett Lawrie having chugged home from second.

Then – why not – he stole a base.

Not bad for a guy who got up at 3:45 in the morning on Tuesday in order to catch a flight from Buffalo to Florida.

"Thursday I was in Montreal, two days later I'm back in Florida, a day after that I'm in Buffalo, and now I'm here. So I've racked up some air miles in the last few days but it's exciting," said Diaz, who toiled seven years in the minors before finally reaching majors last year with Boston.

He had an anxious moment in the fifth when he stumbled while picking up a ground ball to gun down Loney at first, and another in eighth when he seemed to trip while tracking down a Zobrist pop-up to shallow left field.
"They call it a sniper in baseball, or the Turf Monster, it got me a couple of times, it was pretty embarrassing," he laughed. "I don't know. You could blame it on a number of things but it was just me."

It didn't go unnoticed by his teammates.

"We've got walking class, tomorrow," said Lind.

You only tease the people you like, right?

The man Diaz is replacing, Reyes, said before the game that he hopes his tender hamstring – an MRI showed the area he hurt on Mar. 23 is inflamed – won't keep him out long.

"It's a relief, (the MRI) just showed some inflammation there . . . I'll get some rest, it should be fine and I'll be ready to play," he said.

The situation recalls 2011, when he had two DL stints as a member of the New York Mets because of a balky hamstring. He missed a total of 30 games, but the first stretch lasted exactly two weeks.

"(Two weeks) should be enough, but I don't want to put a date, because with a hamstring you never know . . . sometimes you feel good and you have a set-back," he said.

Though Reyes aggravated the injury on Tropicana Field's artificial turf, he said he has no qualms about playing half his home games on the fake stuff.

"Everybody knows the turf is no good, not just for the legs but for anybody. But that turf is going to be there, it's our home, I have to deal with it and find a routine that I'll be able to stay on the field," said Reyes, who also said he had been thoroughly tested before being allowed to play a pair of pre-season games last weekend in Montreal.

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