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Blue Jays drop home opener to Brewers as slump continues

Toronto Blue Jays centre fielder Kevin Pillar crashes into the wall after a triple by the Brewers’ Travis Shaw in Toronto on Tuesday.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Losing five of the first six games on the road was not exactly the lightening-rod start the Toronto Blue Jays were looking for to carry into Tuesday night's home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers.

And the fact that Josh Donaldson, the Blue Jays' third baseman and best player, was unable to start at third base nursing a sore right calf injury only added to the jittery mood of the club's supporters just over a week into the start of the 2017 season.

Still, the first game of the year at home is always the great equalizer, no matter if your team is considered the dregs of the division or a championship contender, the latter of which this veteran club definitely see themselves as this year.

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The fans still turn out in droves to show the love for the boys of summer, at least for the home opener, when everything seems shiny and new and exciting regardless of the won-loss record.

And so it was Tuesday night at Rogers Centre, where a long-soldout capacity gathering of close to 49,000 ecstatically welcomed back their wounded warriors, the sting of a lousy start conveniently overlooked, at least for the time being.

"For the fans, it's that renewal of their bond around the game, their bond with the team," Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro said during an interview on the field about two hours prior to first pitch.

"And for the players it is a reminder of just how incredible it is in this market, in this city, in this country in general."

If the Blue Jays don't start winning soon they will see how quickly that tide can shift.

Starter J.A. Happ got roughed up for two more home runs and the Blue Jays offence had another anemic showing as the Brewers rained on Toronto's opening day parade with a 4-3 win.

Happ had eight strikeouts but could only last 4.2-innings, allowing four of the Brewers' runs off four hits – two of them homers by Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana.

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Happ, a 20-game winner from last season, has now given up four homers in both his starts this season, both losses. But he did not get much help from the bats in his latest setback that dropped Toronto's record to a surprising 1-6.

"We're not in a good spot, that's for sure," Happ said after the game. "We're just not playing good enough to win games. We're going to come tomorrow and 154 days after that and we're going to try and change that.

"Unfortunately that means we're going to have to put a couple of real good weeks together to kind of get back to even, but we knew we can do that."

Toronto only counted five hits – three by Kendrys Morales and two doubles by Troy Tulowitzki, who cashed all three Toronto runs.

Before the game, Shapiro suggested the concern over a slow start is a bit overblown, given the time of year.

"That's the nature of the first week of the season," Shapiro said. "Everything gets exaggerated, everything gets accentuated."

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Shapiro spent a busy day on the hustings extolling the virtues of the Blue Jays, beginning with a live radio chat on CBC's Metro Morning early in the a.m.

At the ballpark, he was also on with Hamilton's CHCH-TV and then CBC news Toronto before doing due diligence on Prime Time Sports, broadcast live on Sportsnet, an entity of Rogers Communications Inc., which just happen to be the owners of the Blue Jays.

Talk about all in the family.

The show was being shot live from a small stage that was built near the front of the Blue Jay dugout in foul territory down the third-base line. Tim & Sid, another Rogers sports chat TV show, was also airing live on a nearby portable stage.

As the fans settled into their seats for the game, Donaldson, whose injury is not expected to keep him out very long, was still given his due.

It started with a video montage on the stadium's giant TV screen showing clips of Donaldson's hard-charging playing style that quickly endeared him to Toronto's baseball fans shortly after his arrival on the scene in 2015.

Then Donaldson walked out to the field to a thunderous applause where he was greeted at third base by Gibbons, who presented him with the 2016 Silver Slugger Award as the American League's top-hitting third baseman.

After that, newly minted Hall of Fame member Tim Raines, a Blue Jay minor-league instructor, threw out the first pitch to former Blue Jay great Roberto Alomar.

Gibbons said it is all part of the opening-day mystique, which he said he can appreciate. "And then when this night's over, we'll just kind of settle in into the normal routines of baseball," he added.

These are heady times for Toronto sports lovers, with the Maple Leafs in hockey and the Raptors in basketball both heading for the playoffs. This year, the Blue Jays are shooting for their third straight post-season appearance.

Veteran Toronto outfielder Jose Bautista, playing in his ninth home opener for the Blue Jays, said he has noticed an upswing in the sports landscape in the city since his arrival.

"It's all booming, so we got to keep it going," he said.

A win or two would help.

Video: Aaron Sanchez says Blue Jays are ‘excited’ for home opener (The Canadian Press)
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