Vlad, newcomers help Blue Jays win battle of bats

Guerrero's sac fly in 9th bests Cards; Toronto bangs out club record 19 hits for Opening Day

March 31st, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- The Blue Jays spent the slow days of Spring Training preaching a cleaner brand of baseball. Then, on Opening Day, a beautiful mess blew through Busch Stadium.

Toronto’s 10-9 win over the Cardinals to open the season was not the masterclass in precision that this club hopes to someday deliver. Manager John Schneider laughed and called some of 's five hits “lawn darts.”  called some of the team’s 19 hits “duck fart hits.” In the end, they all call it 1-0.

The Blue Jays may still be miles from where they want to be in terms of the small things and fine details they spoke of so often through February and March, but Game 1 of the 2023 season was the starting point of a club headed in that direction. By October, Toronto wants to be doing all of the small things right, but even amid the wild swings and spectacle in St. Louis was a lesson that one small thing can still win a game.

At 9-9 heading into the ninth, Kevin Kiermaier, who has said repeatedly that he wants to be the best No. 9 hitter in baseball, followed a Whit Merrifield walk with a simple single. He then raced to third on Springer's game-tying single that scored Merrifield to set up Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who brought him home with a sac fly against Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley. It wasn’t Toronto’s most exciting run of the game -- not close -- but 2023 isn’t about style points.

“That’s a damn good closer and Vladdy just did the job,” Schneider said. “To get to that point, you see Kiermaier going first to third and that’s the stuff we talk about that wins games. It doesn’t really show up, but him getting to third base allowed Vladdy to do that.”

Toronto’s 19 hits were the most in club history on Opening Day, and the most by any MLB team on Opening Day since the 2005 Cubs. The Blue Jays will accept some batted-ball luck with open arms and a bit of a laugh, but this is what their lineup is capable of in any given game.

It all looks better when a smart play tilts the slugfest at the end, too.

“It just lets us know that everything we’ve talked about, everything we’ve preached, it matters,” Springer said. “Stuff like that doesn’t show up in a box score. It’s a long year. It’s hard to do it all the time, but that’s the style of game that everyone in there expects to play.”

With how the Blue Jays’ offense looked, a loss wouldn’t have made sense. The bullet points were just too good.

Varsho got things started with an RBI double that left his bat at 112.5 mph, the hardest-hit ball of his MLB career in his first career plate appearance with the Blue Jays. Before Guerrero brought home the decisive run, he smoked a single at 115.5 mph, then later took a 102.9-mph pitch from Jordan Hicks and lined it to right field. It was the hardest pitch Guerrero has faced in the big leagues, and he still found a spot in the outfield to drop it.

This offensive effort had to cover up for some unexpected pitching performances after Alek Manoah allowed five runs over just 3 1/3 innings and the bullpen stumbled at points. Both Manoah and the ‘pen should be strengths long-term, but with a deeper lineup and improved outfield defense, the Blue Jays should be better suited to win strange, back-and-forth games like this one.

Few players represent that identity shift better than Varsho, the newcomer who enjoyed one fine debut.

“I didn’t think it was going to take that long, but it happens,” Varsho said with a smile. “Normally, when you go through that situation and you respond every time the other team scores, it shows the courage and what we can do as a team overall. It’s just a lot of fun playing that type of baseball, because we can do a lot of things other teams can’t.”

A season only holds so many games like Thursday. Most of Toronto’s wins over the coming months will be calmer, more controlled and cleaner, even if that comes at the cost of some entertainment value. It’s important to pick up these wins along the way, though, as a win on March 30 counts just the same as September.

By then, the Blue Jays plan to be on top of the little things. Every single one of them.