'We're motivated and we're hungry,' righty says after Opening Day win
By Hal Bodley
ST. PETERSBURG -- The second time around in the rugged American League East is not so lovelier, as the melody goes. Since 2000, only the Yankees have won back-to-back titles and the last time they did, it was 2011-12.
It took an awesome second-half surge last year for the Toronto Blue Jays to finally win their first division title since 1993, and they insist they haven't forgotten what it took to reach that lofty perch.
And, yes, they agree, repeating may be an even more difficult journey. But they're putting the historical reality out of their minds. Actions speak louder than numbers.
In Sunday's Opening Day at Tropicana Field, the Jays held off the Tampa Bay Rays, 5-3, behind a brilliant effort by young right-hander Marcus Stroman, who was on the disabled list this time last year.
He's no David Price, but he's confident and capable of filling the hole left when Price took $217 million to sign with arch-rival Boston.
The 24-year-old Stroman, who has the tools, vision and desire to become the Blue Jays' ace, pitched like one in front of a sellout crowd.
He held the recast Rays to three runs on six hits during eight-plus innings. The Duke grad retired 12 Rays in a row after the fourth inning when he fell into a groove as his sinkerball baffled opposing batters. The string of outs ended when newcomer Corey Dickerson homered to lead off the ninth. When Desmond Jennings followed with a blistering single to center, Stroman's day was done.
He came within the last three outs of joining Jack Morris, who in 1992, pitched the only Toronto complete game on Opening Day.
"We're motivated and we're hungry," said Stroman, who missed all but four games of '15 after suffering a knee injury in Spring Training that required surgery. "We know what we have to do and what we're capable of.
"We're keeping this in-house; we're concerned with that and going out each and every day to get wins."
I mentioned how difficult it is to repeat as division champion. He agreed, but almost shrugged off the obvious difficulty.
"We show up each and every day and have one goal, and that's to just go out and compete," he said. "If we do that, everything else will take care of itself."
Ask John Gibbons, the Blue Jays' capable skipper, about winning back-to-back titles and he quips, "I don't know, I've never had to do it before."
Gibbons is in his second tour with the Blue Jays, having managed them in 2004-08. He returned in 2013.
"Repeating is very tough," he said. "There's so much parity in the game now. During my first go-round here, the Yankees and Red Sox were always the top two teams. They were at it every year. They were the two front-runners by June and everybody else was looking up."
The Blue Jays were basically a .500 team at mid-season last year, but Price led an influx of talent that changed their fortunes.
"Everything fell in place for us last year. We made some key pickups and everything fell in line.
"When you talk about repeating, the injury bug is what really can change things. The fact is this is going to be a good division again this year; the whole American League is good. It's going to take some hard work and some breaks again. And a little bit of luck."
Can't forget what it took to get there?
"What we got going for us is we have a lot of guys who've been through it. Some good veterans," he said. "We don't have to lean on our young guys like we did early in the season last year. That's very comfortable for the manager."
When Gibbons talks about Stroman, he almost sounds like a proud papa.
"Today, he rose to the occasion," said Gibbons. "That doesn't surprise me, it doesn't surprise anybody. He's good and he's only going to get better."
Gibbons chuckles when he talks about the sometimes emotional, often free-spirited pitcher.
"We'll miss David Price. He did a wonderful job for us and I'm sure he'll pick right up with Boston where he left off here. There are not many of those kinds of guys. Stro's got to earn that. You've got to do it for a few years before you get to that category, but he's as close as we got to it [Price] now.
"But I can't say enough good things about the kid [Stroman]. He's not been here that long, but has all the intangibles to be really good. He's a pleasure to watch."
When Stroman returned late in the season after his surgery, he was 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA.
"You've seen what he did last year when he came back," said shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, whose two-run homer in the eighth inning off Rays reliever Ryan Webb was Major League Baseball's first of '16. "He brings energy. He competes as well as anybody I've seen. He keeps me busy. It's really fun when he takes the mound."
Rays manager Kevin Cash probably summed up the disheartening loss best: "We just got beat by a really good pitcher today and that's going to happen."
For the Blue Jays, the spirited victory was just a mini-step to the arduous task of repeating. To say that's on their minds is an understatement.
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.