At Class-A Dunedin last year, Kevin Pillar played in front of a handful of fans. At Triple-A Buffalo this year, he remembers a few crowds in the 10,000-to-12,000 range.
Suddenly, his world changed. Awakened Wednesday by Buffalo manager Marty Brown with the news he'd been called up to the majors, Pillar called his parents, woke up his brother on the West Coast, then encountered a blurry series of "wow moments."
In a limo on the highway to Toronto, he grabbed a nap, waking up in time to see the Toronto skyline for the first time. Entering the Rogers Centre, walking from the clubhouse on the third-base side underneath the stands and through the dugout to see the field, everything appeared bigger than he'd imagined.
He would play his first two games in a matchup between American League East division rivals. The crowd Thursday, 40,477, pushed Toronto's season attendance beyond the two-million mark as the Blue Jays defeated the Red Sox 2-1.
"It's definitely nice to hear some applause, to hear some cheers," the 24-year-old Californian said before Thursday's game, reflecting on his debut the night before. "It's definitely a different experience, playing with the noise."
What's more, Thursday featured a first-class pitching matchup between Mark Buehrle and Jake Peavy, both all-stars previously as teammates with the Chicago White Sox.
The Jays are 2-0 with Pillar in the lineup. Buehrle (9-7) danced out of trouble constantly with crafty pitching and a big assist from Pillar, holding the Red Sox to a run until the Jays scored a pair on Peavy (9-5) in the seventh inning. Buehrle gave up 10 hits in the seven innings.
In the first inning, Jonny Gomes hit a two-out single to Pillar in left, with Dustin Pedroia on second base. Pillar threw a strike to catcher J.P. Arencibia to cut down Pedroia at the plate for the third out.
Getting his first major-league hit is the next challenge.
Peavy struck Pillar out twice on outside, off-speed pitches and reliever Craig Breslow set him down on strikes for the final out of the seventh, after the Jays went ahead on a RBI single by Brett Lawrie and deep sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Mark DeRosa.
On Wednesday, Pillar was surprised when he hit a line drive to right field, thinking he'd collected his first big-league hit, but Shane Victorino hauled it in easily.
"I was like, 'I guess it's true about the big leagues, that they know where you're going to hit the ball before you hit it,'" Pillar said. "Off the bat, I thought it was a for-sure hit. [First-base coach Dwayne Murphy] told me Victorino was one of the best throughout his career at prepitch moving and, sure enough, he was there. He knew."
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons describes Pillar as a solid ballplayer with all-around skills, able to run the bases, play all three outfield positions, and hit consistently. Playing left field in his debut Wednesday, Pillar made a diving catch of a Gomes liner in the sixth.
"If you're going to run across the middle, you might as well catch the ball, because you're still going to get hit," Pillar said, recalling his high-school football mentality. "It's the same in baseball with the wall, you might as well catch the ball, because you're still going to hit it."
Toronto Blue Jays (56-65) at Tampa Bay Rays (68-51)
Friday, 7:10 p.m. (EDT):
RHP R.A. Dickey (9-11, 4.46 earned-run average) vs. RHP Jeremy Hellickson (10-6, 4.93)
Saturday, 7:10 p.m.:
LHP J.A. Happ (2-2, 5.11) vs. RHP Roberto Hernandez (6-12, 4.95)
Sunday, 1:40 p.m.:
RHP Todd Redmond (1-1, 3.62) vs. RHP Chris Archer (6-5, 3.10)
Happ returns to Tropicana Field for the first time since a Desmond Jennings line drive struck him flush on the head May 7. He returned to action exactly three months later, and made two starts before leaving the team to attend the funeral of a grandfather. … Ironically, Rays RHP Alex Cobb returned to action Thursday. He was also struck on the head, by a line drive off the bat of Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, and missed two months. … Rays 3B Evan Longoria in 13 games vs. the Jays this season: .383, seven doubles, four home runs, 11 runs, 13 RBIs, .491 on-base percentage, .787 slugging percentage. … Blue Jays are 5-8 vs. the Rays this season.