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Jays nation ready to rock once again

TORONTO – Friday night was Mark Shapiro’s 24th home opener in Major League Baseball. But the new Blue Jays president has never felt one like this.

His previous ones were in Cleveland, first at old Municipal Stadium and then at Jacobs-turned-Progressive Field. Save for a few years in the late 90s, most years in C-Town would see a full house for day one and crickets for weeks thereafter. It’s not going to be that way here.

“I’m thinking about the fact there won’t be one city watching tonight,” Shapiro said Friday night before the eyes of Canada focused on the Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox in Rogers Centre. “There’s going to be a nation watching across different time zones, not because it’s a national broadcast but because it’s a national team.”

Shapiro talked about how blown away he was by the Blue Jays’ exhibition series last weekend in Montreal, where more than 100,000 fans packed old Olympic Stadium over two days – and he said many of them mixed Blue Jays hats with Expos jerseys, and vice versa.

It hasn’t been like this here, of course, for a long time. This is the first time the Blue Jays have entered a season with real expectations since the mid-90s. They were two games shy of the World Series in October and hope to take that next step this time.

“Going into the last couple of years, we thought we had the team that could do something but we didn’t know for sure,” said manager John Gibbons. “Now we got over the hump last year and we want to build on that, we want to make this last.”

Things have been a little rough of late. After winning their first two games, the Blue Jays bullpen has become an arson squad. The Jays are 2-3 after Friday’s 8-7 loss to the Red Sox – a game that the relief corps coughed up a 7-2 lead the offense built through five innings.

Marcus Stroman left with one out and the bases loaded in the sixth. Jesse Chavez came in and his second pitch was sent out, drilled to right by Brock Holt for a grand slam that suddenly got Boston within 7-6. In the seventh, Brett Cecil gave up RBI singles to David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez and that was that.

For his part, Stroman wasn’t blaming the pen. He was unhappy with his three walks, two that came in front of the Holt slam.

“We did an unbelievable job swinging the bats and I didn’t do my job,” he said. “It’s frustrating. My command was not there today.”

It spoiled what was a party for five innings that felt like things just picked up where we left off in October. Kevin Pillar led off with a triple to right-center in the first and scored the season’s first run north of the border on an Edwin Encarnacion sacrifice fly. Then came a six-run fourth - capped by Josh Donaldson’s booming first-pitch grand slam to left off Boston starter Joe Kelly that drove the sellout crowd of 48,871 bonkers, October-style.

“It was nice. First game back at home it’s nice to be able to do something like that,” Donaldson said. “At the end of the day we lost the game and there’s no small victories when we lose.”

A Toronto team that hit just .213 and struck out 46 times in the four games at Tampa Bay seemed like it was back to its old self but the good feelings didn’t last. The Boston bullpen threw six shutout innings of two-hit ball after Kelly departed, easily outworking its Toronto counterparts.

“I’m not really concerned about those guys in the bullpen,” Donaldson said. “They just have to get acclimated to their surroundings a little bit and they’ll be fine.”

Looming over this Toronto season is the potential departure in free agency of both Jose Bautista and Encarnacion. So the Blue Jays have to live in the now.

Part of that will include reminding the fan base with uber-expectations that you’re not just picking up in the euphoria of October. This is a six-month marathon, with the four-game split in Tampa featuring two bullpen blowups.

Shapiro is ready for the hyper-scrutiny.

“If you’re not in a situation where there’s not expectations in the marketplace, then you haven’t done a very good job because it means they’re disengaged,” he said. “They’re not paying attention. You have to welcome expectations and embrace them even though they’ll come with passion. There’s going to 162 moments of ups and downs throughout a season that will translate to both applause and criticism.”

The Blue Jays opened Friday’s festivities with one last tribute to 2015. Bautista, he of the epic postseason bat flip now immortalized on a giant banner outside of the dome, and Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar went to the outfield fence to reveal logos commemorating the AL East title and the franchise’s 40th anniversary season.

The Mounties were on hand to present the colors. A giant Canadian flag was unfurled across the outfield.

Donaldson, limited to DH duty Friday by a balky calf, took one more standing ovation and roaring “M-V-P” chant as he received his most valuable player plaque from the franchise’s other winner, 1987 slugger George Bell.

“It’s a big sign of this organization how they have former players come back and are willing to be a part of it,” Donaldson said. “To honor guys who are playing now, especially somebody as special as George Bell, it means a lot.

“I try not to get emotional out there ... But the fact of the matter is this is a new season, a long season ahead of us and we have a lot of guys who need to perform.”