TORONTO -- It was about two hours before the first pitch of the season was thrown in Rogers Centre and Jose Bautista was leaning against the padding by the Blue Jays' dugout holding court with the media. When last we checked in with the Jays, they were dropping the American League pennant here in Game Five against Cleveland last October and the end of an era seemed to be at hand.
Would he stay or would he go? It was the question everybody asked about Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. In a winter where power hitters were clearly marginalized in free agency, Encarnacion finally found a deal with the Indians, of all teams. Bautista, coming off a season that saw him bat just .234 with 22 home runs, returned on a one-year $18 million deal.
Bautista & Co. were back here Tuesday night for their home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers. A city once full of losing teams is now full of winners. The Leafs are going to the playoffs and are the talk of the town. The Raptors are a force in the NBA. Even Toronto FC got to the final of MLS. Folks in the 716 have no idea what that feels like.
But under the cavernous dome, early trouble is brewing. The Blue Jays may be coming off back-to-back trips to the AL Championship Series but their 4-3 loss here Tuesday dropped them to 1-6 for the first time in their history. That's not going to cut it anymore up here.
"The fans are coming out more. They're supporting us more. You see the memorabilia and the apparel everywhere," Bautista said. "That's a little different than when I first got here. You could always tell there's a lot of love for the Jays and it was Canada's team. It's just that now we're having a pretty good team on the field, they're all pushing for us. It doesn't hurt that the Raptors are also doing well, the Leafs are in the playoffs and the FC team as well. The whole sports scene in Toronto is booming and we've got to keep it going."
A crowd of 48,456 filled the park for the opener, just four days past the 40th anniversary of the iconic first game in franchise history, played in the snow of Exhibition Stadium. There was plenty of pageantry, with Josh Donaldson getting his Silver Slugger Award and Hall of Famer to be Tim Raines, a current Jays minor-league instructor, resplendent in his Montreal Expos jersey as he threw a ceremonial first pitch to Blue Jays Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar.
There's a lot of offense in that tandem. Too bad neither can help the current Jays lineup. The Jays are tied with the rebuilding Atlanta Braves for the worst record in the majors. Yes, it's just seven games. Yes, it's super early. But as manager John Gibbons said before the game, "We need to get moving, there's no question about that."
"It's a long season. It's a marathon," said catcher Russell Martin. "If you compare it to a 15-round fight, it's the first round. There's no panic in our locker room. Everything is magnified at the beginning of the season. There's a long season ahead, a lot of baseball to be played. You can't let the first couple games of the season dictate how we're going to play for the rest of the season."
The Blue Jays are the first team to lose in back-to-back ALCS appearances since the Mariners of 2000 and 2001. Those Seattle teams lost to the Yankees both years, the second coming after a record-setting, 116-win regular season. They never got to the World Series. With the Indians on the rise, the Red Sox appearing formidable and the Astros looking like the next great young team, the Toronto window might be slamming shut.
The numbers thus far are ugly. After losing their sixth straight home opener, the Blue Jays are batting just .196 -- and a sickly 7 for 46 with runners in scoring position.
"It's tough. Still early. We'll be fine," insisted shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. "Some guys pressing a little bit. But at the same time, it's a good ballclub. Just keep at it."
The individual numbers have added up to the ugly sum. Bautista is just 3 for 25. Martin is 0 for 18 and looks completely lost after striking out three times. Devon Travis is 3 for 27.
Kendrys Morales, who was 5 for 24, went 3 for 4 in the game. Tulowitzki (3 for 24) went 2 for 3 and drove in all three runs. Those were all five of the Jays' hits in the game. The rest of the lineup was 0 for 24.
"A big hit here or there, a big pitch here or there to get out of an inning and we might be looking at everything totally different right now," Gibbons said. "But that's not the way it works. The effort's good, the concentration is good, it's just we haven't clicked yet. But we will. It's not how you start, it's how you finish. Somebody said that before, right?"
The only guy really hitting is Donaldson, who is 8 for 24 and didn't play in this one because of his balky calf until striking out as a pinch-hitter in the ninth. It's the second calf issue that has hit Donaldson since he arrived at spring training and, with Encarnacion gone, the Jays can ill afford to have him battling injury troubles.
"It's one of our best players and one of our biggest, if not our biggest, offensive weapons," Bautista said. "We've got to find a way to win, every single guy, regardless of who's in the lineup."
The Jays figure to have strong starting pitching but 20-game winner J.A. Happ gave up two home runs and was gone after 4 2/3 innings. And this offense will be putting too much pressure on the pitching if this continues.
"We're not in a good spot, that's for sure," said Happ. "We're just not playing good enough to win games. We're going to come tomorrow and the 154 days after that and try to change that."
"We believe in our team. We're not going to stop believing in ourselves," Martin said. "I'm not even feeling those negative emotions in the clubhouse. Guys know they're good. We've done it before and we expect to do it again this year. It's one game at a time and you can't dwell on what's happened."
Fair enough. But the Blue Jays would be wise to start making some things happen. The Leafs and Raptors will have folks in these parts forgetting about them pretty quick.
"You don't want anybody to run away with bragging rights, right?" said Bautista. "You try to make sure that everybody's success rubs off on you. You always try to win. But when other teams in the city are winning and in the playoffs, it makes you be aware of it. You don't want to be the ones pointed to, the ones that are holding everybody back."