TORONTO — Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo has a newfound appreciation for home-court advantage this season.
For more than a season and a half of splitting their home games between Dunedin, Fla., and Buffalo in 2020 and 2021, the Blue Jays have sometimes felt like visitors to their own ballpark. With the team back in Toronto since last July, that is no longer the case.
“I think about it whenever the fans are loud and there’s a lot of emotion here,” Montoyo said. “I think about it every time it happens. Like that series against Boston, playing it here and how strong it was. I think about it – how different it was playing in Buffalo and Dunedin.
That hometown love for the Blue Jays was on full display during their Canada Day game on Friday, the first at Rogers Center since 2019, which was Montoyo’s first year as manager. He is now on his fourth, underlining the time travel the past few years have been for the club. George Springer technically celebrated his first Canada Day as a member of the Blue Jays last year in Buffalo. With all due respect to the great western New York city that graciously hosted the Blue Jays, this one barely counts.
“It will be great to experience that now,” the centre-back said ahead of Friday’s game.
Patriotic pre-game ceremonies included an appearance of the beloved giant Canadian flag during the national anthem and a special tribute to former Blue Jays and Canadiens wide receiver Russell Martin, who announced his retirement from baseball in May. Martin, who was on the court for the ceremony with his family, played 14 major league seasons, including four with the Blue Jays – the most memorable of which were playoff seasons in 2015 and 2016.
“His playing days may be over, but his influence on the game will not be forgotten.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 1, 2022
“What stood out to me the most was he played 14 years and 10 of those years he made the playoffs and that’s what it’s all about,” Cavan Biggio said. , who has crossed paths with Martin in spring training in the past. . “It’s about winning, isn’t it? It’s not really about individual statistics. And, especially a guy behind the plate who controls so much of the game, I just think that totally epitomizes his career.
The presentation included the announcement that Canada’s National Junior Team Most Valuable Player award will now be called the Russell Martin Award and will be sponsored by the Blue Jays. The club also released a video for Martin, which included special messages from former teammates and coaches, including Jose Bautista, Kevin Pillar and former Toronto coach John Gibbons, who each received cheers from the crowd when they were appeared on the big screen.
The Montreal native, who appeared emotional throughout his celebration, then threw the ceremonial first pitch – a strike – to Blue Jays rookie receiver Gabriel Moreno, who wears number 55 in thanks to Martin, with whom he shares similarities behind the plate. Blue Jays staffers suggested Moreno port the number because of it, and Martin talked to him about it on the phone just days before making his MLB debut.
“I told him there were a lot of hits left in the jersey,” Martin said. “And I wish him the best and hope the number treats him well.”
As a Canadian, Martin said he always enjoyed playing at Rogers Center on July 1. Perhaps his most memorable Canada Day game came in 2016 when the Blue Jays and Cleveland met for 19 innings – the Jays lost 2-1 – and Martin was thrown out in the 13th inning for s to be argued with home plate umpire Vic Carapazza.
“You feel the energy of the crowd. The crowd is excited for Canada Day. It’s special because you get the red shirts,” he said. “You feel like you’re in the playoffs, even if it’s not in the playoffs, but you have this feeling of energy that you don’t get in a regular season game.”
The sold-out crowd of 44,445 – many dressed in their free Springer red jerseys – certainly rocked the square as the Blue Jays routed the Tampa Bay Rays 9-2. The win lifted the club’s record to 16-27 on Canada Day and, for his part, Montoyo was relieved his team put on a good show for the fans.
“It’s one of those days where it reminds you how great it is to play for Canada, to play for a country,” said Montoyo, who took photos with fans outside. of the Rogers Center before the game. “It reminds you how cool it is, how great it is to play for a country, and today is one of those days that reminds you of that. In fact, I was getting nervous because I wanted to win so much. There are so many people and it’s such a beautiful day.
Biggio said: “It was really amazing, to say the least. In 2019, we weren’t the caliber of team that we are now, and the stadium was a little fuller this year than it was in 2019. It just adds a bit. »
The offense led the way in this one. After Rays starter Corey Kluber got through the first two innings on just 14 pitches and the Rays took a 1-0 lead, the Blue Jays roster finally got to the veteran right-hander in the third inning so spectacular, hitting five doubles from him. in an around-the-bat round that started with a starting brace from Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who went 3-for-3 with a home run and a walk.
“A good, experienced guy on the mound and we had a plan and we were able to execute it a second time,” said Biggio, who hit base four times.
The Blue Jays chased Kluber in the fourth and racked up four more runs against a Rays bullpen that’s less intimidating than usual due to injuries to their regulars.
On the mound for the Blue Jays, José Berríos has at least improved on his previous two outings, throwing five two-run innings. He worked around eight hits — the Rays were 0-for-7 with men in the scoring position — with two walks and three strikeouts. His command wasn’t as precise as it could have been, which boosted his pitch count, but the right-hander was at least confident his pitches were more competitive and he wasn’t missing much.
“I feel stronger, more competitive, obviously, today,” Berríos said. “Those pitchers were really, really close. They weren’t called by the ref…but that’s part of the game, and I can’t control that. Keep doing what I did, just throw some quality pitches and (try to) get the batter out.
During his first Canada Day game, Berríos said he could feel the atmosphere, which, as Martin said, was more like a playoff game than a regular season game. During his pre-game routine, he heard many fans, many of them children, cheering him on, he said.
“They came to the stadium to have fun, and we were happy to give them a win,” he said.
After Berríos, the Blue Jays got four big innings from their heavily used bullpen, with Trent Thornton, Sergio Romo — in his Blue Jays debut — and Max Castillo combining for 12 outs. Even as the home team ran away with it, the crowd remained energized, even spontaneously chanting “O Canada” in the top of the ninth inning to cap off the victory.
“All day, it was so special to see how this crowd and the city embodies the pride of Canada,” said Biggio.
Besides delighting the crowd, the victory was also important for the Blue Jays in the standings. With their victory over the Rays and a loss to the Red Sox, they once again became the sole holders of the first wildcard spot. With the Blue Jays only facing opponents from the AL East Division this week, it was going to be a big game, and they have so far gone 4-1 against the Red Sox and Rays.
They play a doubleheader on Saturday – Kevin Gausman starts the first game and Thomas Hatch the second – then presumably Ross Stripling will close things out on Sunday. Eight games in seven days is a daunting task, but the Blue Jays are using their home field advantage to their advantage.
(Photo: Mark Blinch/Getty Images)