More than 8,000 fans packed McKechnie Field on a sunny Wednesday, seemingly half dressed in Blue Jays blue-and-white gear in contrast to the black and yellow of Pittsburgh Pirates fans. Hundreds of them rimmed the outfield fence on a new boardwalk that overlooks the diamond and stretches from one foul pole to the other (with a tiki bar between), and that vantage point provided a unique perspective on the defence that Toronto will field this season.
In the third inning, Blue Jays left fielder Melky Cabrera threw out Russell Martin at the plate, trying to score from second on a single by Gaby Sanchez. The fans saw speed on the basepaths too, as Blue Jays centre fielder Anthony Gose went from first base to home plate on a grounder to third base, when the throw got past Sanchez at first.
In left, Cabrera has 66 outfield assists in his seven seasons. In right field, the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista, with his Clemente-like arm, has 57 assists in seven seasons.
"Melky, I've been on the other side a lot with him," said Toronto starting pitcher Mark Buehrle, who worked 3 2/3 innings in what would be a 5-4 loss in 10 innings. "When you can get a guy trying to go from first to third, or second to home, obviously that picks up the pitcher and the entire team."
Gose, 22, is trying to make a case for himself as the centre fielder of the future, if not the present. Showing his impressive range, he made a full-layout diving catch in the alley to deprive a Yankees hitter of extra bases last Sunday. And after going 0-for-2 with a walk in Jose Reyes's leadoff spot Wednesday, the left-handed hitter is batting .344 this spring.
"They told me I'm going to [Triple-A] Buffalo this year," said Gose, a straightforward Californian. "Hopefully I can put the pressure on them to in some way make room for me here."
Given that incumbent Colby Rasmus is coming off an unimpressive offensive season and is averaging .143 in six spring games, Gose might have been a more serious candidate for a starting job.
In 56 games with the Jays last season, however, he struck out 59 times. That pace of whiffs projected to 171 over a full season, heady even for a power hitter, which Gose is not. Obtained from Philadelphia via Houston in July of 2010, Gose knows what he needs to do in Buffalo.
"The biggest thing is hitting the ball," he said. "If I hit, there will be a place for me. If I don't, there won't."
In the majors, pitchers exploited his propensity to chase breaking balls during his first exposure to big-league play.
"I have to show plate discipline," Gose said. "They just kept working me with off-speed balls off the plate, and I kept swinging."
The Blue Jays are committed for now to Rasmus, whose smooth glide camouflages deceptive speed and the capacity to track down balls in the gap. Rasmus broke into the major leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009, when he was four years younger than the next youngest in a veteran clubhouse. As a sophomore in 2010, he enjoyed his best statistical season despite a public feud with manager Tony La Russa. Obtained by the Jays midway through 2011, Rasmus struggled post-trade and slumped.
In 2012, he averaged .223 versus .276 in 2010, with a .289 on-base percentage versus .361, and a .689 on-base plus slugging percentage versus .743. The 2012 numbers each ranked below league averages, according to the statistical website, baseball-reference.com. Rasmus did match his 2010 home-run production with 23, though they came bunched.
Who is the real Colby Rasmus? If the 2010 version reappears, Gose may be in Buffalo a while longer than he would prefer.
With his speed, Gose is capable of stealing 30-plus bases in the big leagues, but as Jays manager John Gibbons said, a few minutes after a walkoff drive to the outfield beat the Jays in the 10th inning: "Hits win the game. Was it a stolen base that scored that winner or a double in the gap?"
He asked that question rhetorically after a writer had invited him to comment on Gose's first-inning scamper around the bases, to score the first run of the game.