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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Feels like forever since we’ve been home’

Toronto’s young stars like Bo Bichette have plenty of experience with extended time on the road thanks to the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

By Scott Miller

Many of their eyelids fluttered open by 6 a.m. Friday. It was not because the Toronto Blue Jays were eager to see the superstar Shohei Ohtani later that evening in the Los Angeles Angels’ home opener in Anaheim, California.

Rather, the bleary-eyed Blue Jays were adjusting to their third time zone in a little more than a week. The fresh energy of a new year? Six weeks of spring training in Dunedin, Florida, followed by a three-city, 10-game trip that matched the longest in franchise history to begin a season.

Briefly, the battle was with body clocks, not pitch clocks.

“Talking to a lot of the guys, everybody woke up pretty early,” the Toronto right-handed starter Kevin Gausman said. “And then went back to sleep.”

The last time the schedule challenged the Blue Jays this early, it was 1984 and they were still playing in Exhibition Stadium. Now they are in Rogers Centre, which opened as Skydome in 1989 and has been undergoing renovations. The extra suitcases to start the season were courtesy of the franchise requesting a few extra days on the road to ensure that construction was completed by the time home games began.

Consequently, when the Blue Jays were to finally have their home opener, Tuesday night against Detroit, it would be the final one played in the majors this season.

“There’s a lot of teams that have played home games and road games already, and we’re still on the road,” Toronto outfielder George Springer said. “So it’s definitely interesting.”

“St. Louis, Kansas City and Anaheim,” Gausman said. “Kind of a weird group of cities.”

If there is any team that seems well equipped to handle this quirky start, it is Toronto. Not only are the talented Blue Jays coming off a 92-win season in which they captured one of the American League’s wild cards, but the lineup cornerstones Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette long ago became accustomed to life as baseball nomads.

After debuting in 2019, what should have been each player’s first full-major league season was 2020, when baseball adjusted to the coronavirus pandemic by playing an abbreviated, 60-game schedule. Because of stringent Canadian governmental restrictions that essentially disallowed visiting teams to cross the border, the Blue Jays played their home schedule in Buffalo, New York.

“That year was obviously crazy. And then in 2021, we were in Dunedin and then Buffalo before we were able to go back to Toronto,” Bichette, 25, said, referring to more restrictions and more games at second homes. “And then last year was the lockout.”

He added: “So it’s been a few crazy years where we haven’t really had a real start to the season.”

At least this year, Bichette said, not only did the season begin on time, but even through the air miles and clock changes, the team knew Tuesday dangled at the end of the road rainbow like a pot of gold.

“When you’re in the minor leagues in whatever organization, you dream of playing in that city and seeing how those fans appreciate you,” said Bichette. “And that was kind of put on hold for us for two years or so. Yeah, it was a little disappointing and tough to handle sometimes. But I think we did a great job, to be honest.”

He added: “We competed no matter what and we didn’t complain. And I think that’s going to help us in the long run.”

The Blue Jays in these opening days of the season appear far more focused on wiping out last October’s disappointing early playoff exit at the hands of Seattle than on, say, dwindling supplies of clean socks and underwear as their laundry piles up. Among general manager Ross Atkins’ offseason transactions were the acquisitions of outfielders Kevin Kiermaier (free agency) and Daulton Varsho (trade with Arizona) and designated hitter Brandon Belt (free agency).

Early returns are especially good from Guerrero and third baseman Matt Chapman. They ranked first and second in hard-hit balls (exit velocity of 95 mph or more) in Major League Baseball through Sunday. Chapman, Guerrero and Bichette were the top three players in the majors in hits, and Chapman ranked first in batting average (.475).

The clubhouse enthusiasm surrounding Guerrero, though, isn’t simply because of how hard he’s hitting the ball, but also how little he is chasing pitches outside the strike zone. Over his first 49 plate appearances, Guerrero, 24, had only three strikeouts to five walks. So far this season, he has moved away from his former free-swinging tendencies — and those of his Hall of Fame father, known as one of the greatest bad-ball hitters in history — and toward the version of himself that led the AL in on-base percentage in 2021.

Guerrero worked hard on pitch selection throughout the spring, his teammates said, and his growing maturity is evident.

“I’m trusting my teammates,” Guerrero said via a translator. “I’m going to go up looking for my pitch, and if I don’t get it, I’m going to take a walk and trust my teammates to hit behind me.”

Toronto manager John Schneider said that Guerrero’s overall approach “is a lot different than in years past. He’s been around the game for awhile now. And you forget how young he is sometimes.”

Schneider, in his first full season as manager after replacing Charlie Montoyo last July, knows. He is in his 15th season either coaching or managing in Toronto’s organization, and he managed Guerrero, Bichette and Cavan Biggio at Class AA New Hampshire.

All of those experiences likely factored into his short-but-to-the-point address as camp ended and the players packed ... and packed. He did it for one reason.

“You recognize it,” he said, smiling, of the difficult early schedule. “And it squashes the bitching and moaning.”

He hasn’t mentioned it again. And the Jays won five of their first eight games. To close the road trip, they overcame a six-run deficit — built in part by an Ohtani home run — and eventually beat the Angels 12-11 in the 10th inning after Ohtani grounded out with the bases loaded. Chapman hit a grand slam to make it 6-4, and Kiermaier’s two-run triple tied the score on the way to both players finishing with five RBIs.

Eventually, as usually happens in baseball, things will even out. No matter how many early wake-up calls they endure now, the Jays, like everyone else, will still play 81 road games and 81 at home, which means their schedule will eventually turn advantageous.

“There’s only so many really, really big cities that love, love their sports, and Toronto is one of them,” Bichette said, anticipating a happy homecoming. “So to go there and feel the energy, we should have a pretty good crowd there. They love their Blue Jays.”

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