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Toronto set for Grapefruit action after intrasquad game

Hutchison, Stroman compete in early stages of intense fifth-starter auditions

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays put the finishing touches on their preparation for the Grapefruit League season by playing a five-inning intrasquad game on Tuesday afternoon.

Manager John Gibbons divided his team into two groups, which included 13 position players on each side. A total of nine pitchers were used, with right-handers Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman getting the one-inning start.

The atmosphere was still relatively relaxed but provided everyone with one final tune-up before Wednesday's spring opener against the Phillies at 1:05 p.m. ET on MLB.TV. The games won't really start to count until Opening Day in late March, but this is all part of a process to get ready for the 162-game grind.

"They all threw the ball really well," Gibbons said. "But Stroman, yeah, he and Hutch coming out of the gates. They're both competing, I thought they both looked great. I thought we played a good baseball game -- crisp, good PFP (pitchers' fielding practice), a lot of good things."

There was a lot of talk last year that the Blue Jays' camp didn't have enough intensity. The club was criticized for its laid-back approach, and while a lot of that was overblown, there does appear to be a slightly different atmosphere around camp this spring.

The true test won't come until later in the spring, but the work days have been a little longer, and most of the players seem to be a little more zeroed in on the tasks at hand. There's also the added benefit of having the entire roster together this spring without a large group of guys departing for the World Baseball Classic.

The next step is the 32-game spring schedule, which kicks off Wednesday afternoon and can also be watched live in Canada on MLB Network. There's only so much teams can do before the spring schedule officially gets underway, but Gibbons appears content with how everything currently stands with his team.

"We have [Munenori] Kawasaki here, we didn't have him in Spring Training last year, that always does that," Gibbons joked when asked about the different atmosphere around camp. "But, hey, they're focused, everybody's disappointed with how last year went, and they're focused on improving on that.

"We're ready to go, but I feel good about it. It has been a nice, crisp pace, guys are focused, I feel real good about it."

Hitters are usually a step behind the pitchers at the start of every Spring Training, and that was apparent during Wednesday's intrasquad game. Both teams combined for just one run on nine hits, four of which came in the second inning off top prospect Aaron Sanchez.

But there were still some positives to take out of the abbreviated game. Dioner Navarro made some hard contact with a single to right, while Erik Kratz and Maicer Izturis also had a hit each. Most importantly, though, Hutchison and Stroman impressed on the mound, and both will need to carry that into games against the opposition.

Stroman and Hutchison are part of a group that also includes Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond and Kyle Drabek that is competing for the final spot in the starting rotation. By far, that will be the competition to watch the most this spring.

"It went all right, it could have gone a little better," said Hutchison, who gave up a bunt single to outfielder Anthony Gose but later picked him off second base and got through his inning of work unscathed. "Overall for the first day, it was fine.

"I made some good pitches when I was behind in some counts, the pickoff was good, so overall it was a positive day. For me, [the goal] was to throw strikes and command the baseball. Obviously you guys know that's what I like to do."

More than anything else, the Blue Jays are just looking forward to entering the next phase of camp. Pitchers have been officially working out since Feb. 16 and in most cases arrived at the club's Spring Training complex at least several days before that. The hitters joined on Thursday, and after a few days of taking live batting practice, they'll now prepare to face opposing pitchers for the first time.

It's another sign that the regular season is right around the corner. Almost everyone in the clubhouse has been through this process before, but there are still a few fresh faces. Sanchez is one of the guys getting his first look at Major Leaguers after spending his first three springs on the Minor League side.

"This is my first everything," said Sanchez, who will pitch again on Friday against the Pirates. "I was out there to get my feet wet, and I might have some nerves come Friday, when I'm in a stadium and facing a different team. But it's a lot different when it's your own teammates -- you know the guys, it's not like it's a big difference yet. We'll see how it goes Friday."

Up next: Left-hander J.A. Happ will take the mound against the Phillies on Wednesday afternoon. Philadelphia will counter with right-hander Roberto Hernandez, who joined the club as a free agent during the offseason. This is the first of a back-to-back set between these two teams, with the Phillies hosting on Wednesday and the Blue Jays having their home spring opener the following day. Both games are scheduled to start at 1:05 p.m.

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB.

Toronto Blue Jays, J.A. Happ, Drew Hutchison, Maicer Izturis, Erik Kratz, Dioner Navarro, Marcus Stroman