Expectations high with Jays set for home opener
TORONTO—Tired of rooting for terrible teams, frustrated fans in Canada's biggest city are hungry for a winner. And now, more than any time since they won consecutive World Series titles from 1992-93, there's a growing belief that baseball's Blue Jays can become the toast of the town.
There hasn't been much sporting success to enjoy in Toronto, where the NBA's Raptors are rebuilding and Major League Soccer's Toronto FC, still without a playoff appearance in five seasons, are off to a winless start. The Canadian Football League's Argonauts aren't much better -- they haven't had a winning record in four years.
Even die-hard hockey fans are turning away from their beloved team: fed-up Maple Leafs supporters chanted "Let's go Blue Jays!" during a 7-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on March 30, a dispiriting defeat that came one game after the Leafs were eliminated from playoff contention for the eighth straight season.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays sold out Monday night's home opener in less than an hour, then topped the spring training standings with a 24-7-1 record. With an extra wild-card berth now available, expectations have soared to levels not seen in almost two decades.
"I think that not only Toronto, but all of Canada is ready to embrace this team," second-year manager John Farrell said.
Brett Lawrie, the Canadian-born third baseman who burst onto the scene last August with nine homers and a .293 average in 43 games, is particularly pumped about hitting the field for the home opener against the winless Boston Red Sox.
"The city is alive," Lawrie said. "There's going to be a good buzz and I can't wait."
Before anyone gets too carried away, the Blue Jays still have to endure another season in the AL East and a steady diet of games against the Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, the three teams who have dominated the division in recent years. Is this Toronto team really talented enough to avoid a fifth straight fourth-place finish and challenge for the postseason?
All-Star slugger Jose Bautista, winner of the past two major league home run crowns, certainly thinks so.
"Sure, we're in a tough division, but we have talent," Bautista said. "We have to hope for good health. If that happens, we don't need guys to do crazy, overboard things to win. If everybody does what is expected, we should have a good year. If we just do our jobs, we should be fine."
One guy the Blue Jays will be counting on Monday is right-hander Henderson Alvarez, hoping he can give the bullpen a break after Toronto's staff worked overtime in the season-opening series at Cleveland. The relievers pitched 18 innings in three games as the Blue Jays and Indians twice went to extra innings, including a major league-record 16 in Thursday's opener. Toronto bolstered its bullpen following Sunday's 4-3 loss, calling up left-hander Aaron Laffey from Triple-A Las Vegas.
Alvarez started last season in Class-A and finished it with a 10-start cameo in the major leagues, winning just once but allowing a measly eight walks while striking out 40 in 63 2-3 innings. Having seen how poised and confident Alvarez was last season, Farrell isn't concerned about the situation getting the better of the 21-year-old Venezuelan.
"I assume he will handle it like he did everything else last year, by working quickly, throwing strikes and changing speeds," Farrell said. "He handled himself exceptionally well in all situations."
The Red Sox will counter with their own Venezuelan, left-hander Felix Doubront, whose last big league start came in July 2010. Doubront made 11 relief appearances for the Red Sox last year, then won a starting spot this spring after posting a 2.70 ERA over 16 2-3 innings in four games, three of them starts.
Boston will be hoping for a strong start by Doubront because, even more than the Blue Jays, the Red Sox have concerns about their injury-riddled bullpen; Boston relievers allowed 11 runs, 10 earned, and 18 hits over 11 1-3 innings in Detroit as the Tigers completed a three-game sweep to start the season.
The Red Sox are without newly acquired closer Andrew Bailey, who had surgery on his right thumb. Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon are the primary candidates to close in Bailey's absence, and both blew saves on Sunday as the Tigers rallied for a 13-12 victory in 11 innings.
Aceves gave up a three-run homer to Miguel Cabrera that tied it in the ninth, then Melancon served up Alex Avila's two-run shot that won it with two outs in the bottom of the 11th.
"This is a work in progress," new Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said. "We're three days in after losing our closer, and we're still trying to figure it out."