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Herd makes winning first impression as Jays affiliate

For openers, it was hard to ask for much more – on the field or in the stands.

In their inaugural game as a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons unleashed a 17-hit attack and drilled the Rochester Red Wings, 12-7, Thursday before 15,852 in Coca-Cola Field.

The fans gave a huge ovation to Blue Jays Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar as he strode to the mound in a new red Bisons jersey to throw a ceremonial first pitch, and they had plenty to cheer about during the game on a chilly but sun-splashed afternoon.

Lots of fans were sporting Toronto caps, jerseys and jackets and there was quite a chorus of “O, Canada”, the national anthem that is now a daily addition to the Bisons’ pregame routine.

“It was neat to see people dancing and enjoying themselves in their Blue Jays gear,” said manager Marty Brown, back at the head of the Herd for the first time since his three-year run in the Cleveland affiliation ended in 2005. “We gotta get them some Bisons stuff but that’s OK. That will come to time.”

“The crowd was great,” added second baseman Jim Negrych, the former St. Francis star who went 3 for 5 in his debut in the home dugout. “The atmosphere was fantastic and to go out and do what we did as a team out there was a good way to start the season.”

The crowd was the largest on Opening Day since 2004 and the largest for a weekday afternoon opener since 1999. They saw the Bisons equal their franchise record for runs in the home opener.

First baseman Luis Jimenez, a 20-home run man at Tacoma who threatened the right-field parking deck during last year’s Triple-A Home Run Derby, crushed the first longball of 2013 when he cranked a two-run shot deep into the party deck in right. It came in the fifth inning and put the Bisons into a 7-1 lead. Veteran outfielder Ryan Langerhans had the clinching blow, a three-run triple to the right-field corner in the eighth that made it 12-6.

Top Toronto outfield prospect Anthony Gose went 3 for 4 and scored three runs while Jimenez, third baseman Andy La Roche, catcher Josh Thole and shortstop Ryan Goins all had multi-hit games. La Roche was hit by a pitch in the eighth on the wrist but it was ruled a foul ball and he was ejected for arguing the point.

Brown, no stranger to discussions with umpires, came bolting from the dugout and was tossed as well by Ben May. Brown spiked his helmet to the ground and earned a standing ovation from the crowd on his way back to the dugout.

“It’s great when you have a manager that’s going to protect you no matter what,” Negrych said.

Negrych, joining Dave Hollins (2001) as the only Western New York natives to become regulars for the Herd in its modern era, continued his hot hitting. After a liner to short in the first and a fly ball to center in the second, he stroked singles in the fourth, sixth and seventh. Negrych, a 28-year-old with no big-league time to his name, hit .412 in regular duty at Toronto’s camp.

“He was almost the star of spring training,” Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos said during the game. “There weren’t a lot of expectations because we didn’t know what to expect and he just won everybody over. ... He’s a much better player than we realized.”

“It was weird driving to the park, a park I’ve gone to my entire life as a fan and as a visitor,” Negrych admitted. “I get a little bit of nerves every time I play a game. Would I say it was more? No. When you’re out there, you don’t realize what’s going on around you and who’s out in the stands. It’s just me and the eight guys I’m out there battling.”

The Bisons outbattled the Red Wings most of the way. It was the 239th career victory for Brown as Herd manager, leaving him 14 shy of equaling the franchise mark of 253 set by Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Brian Graham from 1995-97. Brown said it was a great feeling to see so many familiar faces and so many new ones.

“I enjoy Buffalo and the fans know how I feel about them,” Brown said. “They appreciate good baseball. We had a player today hit a ball and didn’t run hard and I hear it [from the fans]. And believe me, the player hears it too.

“I took Victor Martinez out of a game one time here [in 2003] and he’s never forgotten that, just because he didn’t run hard out of frustration. That’s what this level is about sometimes. It’s about maturing and understanding this game has to be respected. And we make sure when your uniform has ‘Bisons’ on the front of it, you’re going to play the game the right way.”