Jays ready for rumble in East
PHILADELPHIAñOne last day of make-believe baseball behind them, the Blue Jays headed to New York yesterday primed for their most serious challenge in the AL East since the glory days of the early ’90s.
Manager John Gibbons, who has the most to lose if this club does not contend, has been stark about his options this spring. His team must succeed.
“I don’t want to be a manager just to be a manager. I want to be on a winner,” Gibbons said yesterday. “I mean, this job’s fun, but it’s not that fun to get your brains kicked in.”
Battered by injury, the Jays managed an 83-79 record in 2007, nowhere near good enough to catch the Yankees and Red Sox. In the off-season, Toronto added bench depth through utility infielder Marco Scutaro and catcher Rod Barajas. They shored up the left side of the infield by adding Scott Rolen and David Eckstein from St. Louis. That longer bench is paying dividends already, as Scutaro will step in for the injured Rolen for most or all of April.
The infusion of talent means expectations are sky-high. Gibbons, GM J.P. Ricciardi and the players seemed anxious to begin fulfilling them.
“Everybody says spring training’s a week or two too long. Now we’re ready to go, anxious to get to New York and especially to get back to Toronto,” said second baseman Aaron Hill.
Hill has been the standout offensively this spring, going 21-for-47 through yesterday. Last year, he brought that same momentum into the first month of the season, hitting a scorching .313 with 20 RBIs in April.
“I got in the cage, stayed consistent with my workouts and the results have been great. I’ll take those any time,” Hill said.
On the opposite end of the spring spectrum stands slugger Frank Thomas, who’s batted .173 through March. Miserable springs are de rigueur for the future hall of famer. Thomas shrugged off any doubts yesterday.
“That switch turns on when you get those 50,000 people in the stands,” the 18-year veteran said off-handedly. “Same as always.”
After being called out on strikes in the fourth inning, Thomas brooded in the batter’s box for 10 long seconds. Then Hill stepped in and hit a two-run homer. That’s the Jays pre-season in a nutshell.
Gibbons singled out first baseman Lyle Overbay, who’s coming off an injury plagued season, and centre fielder Vernon Wells, who had shoulder surgery last fall, for praise yesterday.
Pitching? Not so much.
“We didn’t dominate during the spring,” Gibbons said. In particular, he has subtly called out young starters Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum in recent days. Both have battled with control while they try to refine their repertoires. The days of experimentation are over. Coming off breakout seasons, McGowan and Marcum will be counted on to shoulder a heavy load.
Yesterday, the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park had a regular-season feel. Thomas marched back and forth between his locker and the batting cages, basking in the “big-league atmosphere.” Roy Halladay panted through his daily three-hour workout.
“He prepares himself so differently than the rest of the guys,” Gibbons said of his ace.
Hill and new infield battery-mate Eckstein volunteered to go out before the game and work on turning the double play.
The bullpen committee sent out to pitch both these final exhibitions in Philadelphia threw with urgency, aware that someone has to go once B.J. Ryan returns.
Brandon League, in particular, showed flashes of brilliance.
Beginning tomorrow, they get to do it for real.
11200 – I live for this!!!!
Jays ready for rumble in East