Vlad back in lineup after missing time with knee injury

March 16th, 2023

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- declared his grand return to the Blue Jays' lineup with his signature play: calling himself safe at first base.

The star slugger and umpiring enthusiast ran through the bag on a groundout in his first at-bat on Wednesday, arms stretched out as the ball bounced past. It was a welcome sight for the Blue Jays after Guerrero left a game back on March 3 with right knee discomfort, the exact words clubs pray to avoid in spring.

Guerrero’s scorching double over the left-fielder’s head in the third inning, with a 113.6-mph exit velocity that looked like another Vladdy classic, only sealed the deal in Toronto’s 7-1 win over Pittsburgh. With two weeks left before Opening Day in St. Louis, Guerrero has plenty of time to prepare for another season that comes with sky-high expectations.

With the Dominican Republic’s 5-2 loss to Puerto Rico Wednesday night, though, which brought a stunning end to the World Baseball Classic for the powerhouse that entered as a favorite, Guerrero no longer has a decision to make about where he’ll be spending the next week.

When Guerrero injured his knee earlier in the month, he was forced to withdraw from the Classic. The 23-year-old takes immense pride in representing his country, which was still on his mind Wednesday with the Dominican Republic facing their win-or-go-home game. If the Dominican Republic had advanced, Guerrero could have jumped back on to the roster -- as long as there was an injured player for him to take the place of -- and been a part of their run at the title.

“I’m going to take this day to day. It all depends on how I feel,” Guerrero said through a club interpreter, prior to the Dominican Republic’s loss. “Right now, I feel great. I don’t know how I’m going to feel tomorrow, so I’m not going to give an answer on that right now. I have to take it day by day and we’ll see tomorrow.”

That answer won’t be needed now, and while it could have been a tremendous opportunity for Guerrero on the international stage, his focus will now rest solely on the final days of Spring Training. Guerrero had traveled to Miami Wednesday night to watch the game, which looked like a fine way to spend his 24th birthday, but will now return to Dunedin.

“We all understand his passion for the country and things like that,” manager John Schneider said prior to the game. “I think everyone’s focus right now is just on him being healthy and playing with the Jays.”

With the knee injury now fully behind Guerrero, it’s time again to dream on his prodigious talent. Guerrero was runner-up in AL MVP voting to Shohei Ohtani in 2021, but took a step back in ’22, something he’s eager to correct the narrative on. 

In the early days of camp, Guerrero spoke about taking a more focused approach in 2023, breaking from a ’22 approach where he was focused on matching his season prior and was “anxious” at the plate. He’s more relaxed now, smiling throughout his post-game interview as he speaks about the lineup he anchors. That lineup is filled with new faces, but that’s by design, and the early looks have been very encouraging.

“I like what I’ve seen so far,” Guerrero said. “I think each of us have a goal, and it’s just to go out there and win a game. Especially in the week that I was out, I had the time to see everyone and watch everybody play. I realized that we have a good team here. I’m looking forward to winning a lot of games here.”

Guerrero will be the engine of that offense, which should rank among baseball’s best in 2023, and four years down the line in ’27, you’ll likely be looking at the tournament’s most motivated player firmly in his prime.