The top of the American League East will be a heavyweight tilt in 2021, and if the Blue Jays want to challenge the Yankees down the stretch this season, they’ll need wins exactly like the one they pulled off on Opening Day in New York.
Some of the remaining 18 games between the Yankees and Blue Jays will be slugfests. These are two of the strongest lineups in baseball with true sluggers at the heart of the order and power from one through nine, but Thursday’s opener had the feel of a postseason game where every inch mattered. And the Blue Jays came out on top by edging the Yanks, 3-2, in 10 innings after Randal Grichuk delivered a go-ahead RBI double.
“The work that they put in through Spring Training paid off in the first game,” manager Charlie Montoyo said after the win. “That’s what I said in my meeting to start Spring Training. ‘The work you put in is going to pay off. Keep working hard.’ They did and it paid off in the first game.”
How they got there featured the late-inning tension rarely found in the first game of the season. The Blue Jays played rock-solid defense throughout to keep the score close and tied, which is a significant departure from their 2020 struggles in the field, and their bullpen worked around control issues to keep the game going. Jordan Romano had runners on the corners with one out in the bottom of the ninth, but Cavan Biggio made a heady play to fire home on a chopper to third for the second out and Romano struck out Aaron Judge to force extras.
On the mound for the Blue Jays was Hyun Jin Ryu, arguably this roster’s most important player given his ace status and the lack of high-end options behind him in a rotation already dealing with multiple injuries. Ryu will be key to Toronto’s postseason hopes this season, and while Gary Sánchez eventually got to the veteran lefty for a two-run home run, his early innings showed that haymakers aren’t the only way to win.
Ryu’s fastball and changeup worked together masterfully to keep the Yankees’ hitters off-balance. It started in the first inning with Judge, who Ryu showed a pair of changeups to before going back to his fastball for strike three. The 91.1 mph four-seamer was almost in Danny Jansen’s glove by the time Judge started his swing. Ryu fanned Aaron Hicks with a similar approach soon after, slowing down his bat with a changeup to make that low-90s fastball look a little more like a high-90s heater.
When the ball was put in play though, it was Ryu’s defense that starred. That’s how the Blue Jays stuck around long enough to give themselves the opportunity to pull ahead in the 10th.
“Not just our infielders, but our outfielders, it’s something we’ve been working on and thought we should focus on,” Ryu said through a club translator. “With all of the training and practices, we’ve shown what we can do. If I could grade our fielders, they would be 100 percent on defense.”
This will be a separating factor for the Blue Jays in 2021. This lineup and defense are spilling over with talent, but too often last season, poor fundamentals led to self-inflicted wounds. When the Rays breezed past the Blue Jays in the Wild Card Series and marched to the World Series, they did that on the back of airtight fundamental play, forcing the other team to beat them outright. What the Blue Jays showed on Thursday in the Bronx was a complete 180 from the style of baseball they were playing last September.
You don’t beat the Yankees on finesse alone, though. You need to land a few big blows of your own.
Teoscar Hernández picked up right where he left off in his Silver Slugger Award-winning 2020, launching a 437-foot solo home run into the left-field bleachers to tie the game in the top of the sixth. One Vladimir Guerrero Jr. walk later, and Gerrit Cole’s day was done.
Even in an opener as tense as this one, though, Hernández’s heart rate doesn’t budge. He’s always had that calm demeanor, but following his breakout 2020 season, it’s developed into a confidence that his teammates consider contagious.
“Our thing is to go out there, have some fun and try to do damage to the other team,” Hernández said. “And we’ll try to win ballgames. As many as we can.”