Thousands of baseball fans young and old streamed into the ballpark on a weekday afternoon, some skipping work or school to sit in the stands, wrapped in their winter coats, and soak in their first — albeit chilly — taste of summer.
Hot dogs and beers dotted the stands.
Foul balls were snagged and thrust into the air with pride.
Toronto Blue Jays top prospect Cavan Biggio belted a two-run homer in his Triple-A debut off major league veteran Gio Gonzalez, helping the Buffalo Bisons open the season with an 8-3 victory against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders before an announced paid crowd of 12,898 fans on Thursday at Sahlen Field, the 32nd opener at this ballpark but first under its new name. The Bisons built an 8-0 lead and cruised to their third consecutive Opening Day victory under third-year manager Bobby Meacham.
“It’s exciting just to finally play games that mean something,” Meacham said, “after all spring training and we talked about it all spring with these guys… The work is almost over. The work is working on your swing, it’s taking ground balls, it’s playing exhibition games. That’s all work. But now we get to play. We get to compete when it means something, and opening day is the start of all that, so hopefully we can continue with that same theme of working before the game starts and then when (game time) comes upon us we’re ready to play and play hard and compete.”
The Bisons improved to 20-12 all-time in home openers at Sahlen Field. The victory was especially welcome after the Bisons closed last season on a modern era franchise record 11-game losing streak.
Bisons righty Jacob Waguespack earned the victory after allowing just one earned run on six hits in six innings. He struck out eight and walked none.
It was 41 degrees at opening pitch, the coldest opening day in Buffalo since it was 35 degrees in 2007.
“I was excited and ready to come out and set the tone,” Waguespack said. “I said it a few days ago, but I think we have a good team here and everybody’s excited.”
Gonzalez, a two-time All-Star opening the season in Triple-A for the first time since 2009, took the loss after being knocked around in his RailRiders debut, allowing eight earned runs on eight hits and three walks in four innings. He struck out one.
Biggio, the son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, led the way offensively for the Bisons, batting 3-for-4 with the homer and two RBIs. His first base hit contributed to Buffalo’s three-run outburst in the first inning, and his two-run homer to right gave the Bisons a 5-0 lead in the third.
“Gio’s got 10-plus years in the big leagues. He’s a very good pitcher,” Biggio said. “I think he made a couple of mistakes this afternoon and we were able to make him pay for it. I kind of grew up watching him play, watching him pitch, so (I was) just lucky enough to get a few barrels on him.
“First at-bat, I swung first-pitch fastball and was able to hit it pretty hard. Second at-bat, I was still looking for another fastball. He started me off with two breaking balls and I think he thought I was going to look for another breaking ball and he tried to sneak a fastball inside, but I stuck to my approach and put a good swing on it.
“I think it was just a perfect first game of the season to get things going.”
Eric Sogard’s double to left-center field scored Bo Bichette from first base for the Bisons’ first run of the season, and Anthony Alford’s single to left gave Buffalo a 2-0 lead. Biggio’s single to right put runners on the corners with nobody out, and Andy Burns’ groundout to third scored Alford for a 3-0 advantage.
Biggio’s homer increased the lead to 5-0 in the third inning, and the Bisons scored three more runs in the fourth. Roemon Fields’ single to left extended the lead to 6-0. Bichette grounded to short, allowing Andrew Guillotte to score from third for a 7-0 lead. Sogard’s sacrifice fly pushed the lead to 8-0.
The RailRiders began to cut into the deficit with three base hits in the fifth inning, with Mike Ford scoring Matt Lipka from second to get Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on the scoreboard. Ford was picked off by Bisons catcher Reese McGuire to end the inning.
Lipka’s two-run homer to left off Bisons relief pitcher Corey Copping allowed the RailRiders to chop their deficit to 8-3 in the seventh inning, but they managed just one more baserunner the rest of the way.
Celery posed for photos and danced atop the home dugout during the seventh-inning stretch, as fans cheered the scene, the pending victory and the birth of a new baseball season.
“I’m excited for this season,” Burns, who rejoined the Bisons after playing the previous two seasons in Korea, said a day earlier. “We’ve got a really good group of guys, and I think we’re going to win a lot of ballgames. Being around Buffalo and knowing that they need a winner, I’m hoping that we’re going to be the team that kind of busts through and makes that happen.”