Scenes from Spring Training: Yu Darvish Mania

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I’m not gonna say that there’s a lot of interest in Yu Darvish’s first start, but the Padres’ PR staff has roped off 100 seats in a section along the third base line as an auxiliary media section.  Yeah, this is not your usual Wednesday morning in the Cactus League.

I got here super early and made my way to the press box to find that every single seat had a name tag on it already, with seats reserved for everyone from Ken Rosenthal on down to the weekend sports reporter of KBFE radio from East Nowhere, Texas. Add to that the usual huge contingent from the Japanese media and we’re talking a really full house.

Indeed, and this is not a joke, here is where I set up in the press box when I got here:

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A few minutes later someone from the Padres’ PR staff upgraded me from the folding tray to a folding table. Which they didn’t have to do given that I’m basically squatting, but these guys are really awesome. No joke: other major league PR staffs can take a cue or two from the Padres’ people, because they are on point today.

After I got sorted, I headed over to the Padres’ facility. Because the Peoria Sports Complex is one of those new mega-facilities housing two teams (the Mariners train here too), it was a long walk, But it’s a beautiful morning here. Crisp, a little on the cool side for Arizona, but perfect for anyone who hails from normal climes. I don’t mean to brag about how awesome my job is all the time because I know that can be annoying, but sometimes I have to pinch myself when I realize that I’m getting paid to smell the freshly-cut grass, listen to bats cracking from distant batting cages and take in perfect desert-in-winter weather. It’s beyond words.

When I got to the Padres’ place, I checked out the bulletin board. The lineup was up. As I wrote it down, a man sidled up next to me and said “skip made out a pretty good lineup today, eh?”  I was about to agree when I turned and saw that it was Bud Black who said it. What a jokester. For the record, the lineup facing Darvish today will be Cameron Maybin, Orlando Hudson, Jesus Guzman, Carlos Quentin, Will Venable, Mark Kotsay, James Darnell, John Baker and Everth Cabrera. Not quite an Opening Day lineup, but not bad either.

I made my way over to Orlando Hudson’s locker. He was friendly and accommodating like most veterans are. I was kind of worried that the Padres players would get sick of all of the questions about Darvish, but if Hudson was annoyed he didn’t show it. He said that he was interested in seeing Darvish up close — he has really only seen his World Baseball Classic action — but that it wasn’t that big a deal. It’s still so early in spring training that he’s just trying to get his timing right and all of that, so it really doesn’t matter who he’s facing. Makes sense. I suppose the Darvish stuff is more interesting for the media than it is for those guys.

As for Darvish himself: he won’t be here for another hour and a half or so. When he does get here, he’ll look up and see this, however:

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Yep: wind blowing out hard. Since I took that picture it has shifted towards right field a bit, but it’s still blowing out strong. I wish Yonder Alonso or some other real lefty power was in the lineup today.  Wind-aided or not, if Darvish gets taken deep a few times I imagine there would be a full-on media meltdown, and that would be great fun.

I’ll be checking in later with reports of how the most anticipated two innings in recent spring training history go.

Blue Jays clinch 1st playoff spot since 2016, beat Yanks 4-1

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Barred from playing in their own ballpark this year because of COVID-19, the vagabond Toronto Blue Jays have found a home in the playoffs.

The slumping New York Yankees, meanwhile, look likely to play on the road in the postseason, where they’ve struggled all year.

Hyun Jin Ryu pitched seven shutout innings and the Blue Jays clinched their first postseason spot since 2016, beating the Yankees 4-1 Thursday night and further damaging New York’s chances of hosting a first-round series.

New York lost for the fourth time in five games following a 10-game winning stretch and remained two games behind the slumping White Sox for the fourth seed. Chicago lost 5-4 at Cleveland, its fifth straight defeat.

“We’ve got to get it rolling again, obviously, if we’re going to get to where we want to go,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I’m confident we can do it.

New York went 21-7 at home this season but was 11-18 on the road. Boone said he’s not concerned about that split even as a potential road playoff series looms next week.

“We’ve got to get ourselves in order and start playing really good baseball if we’re going to give ourselves a chance,” Boone said.

Toronto secured at least an AL wild-card spot and ensured its eighth trip overall to the postseason. The Blue Jays had endured three losing campaigns since their previous playoff trip, going 67-95 last season.

“I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” second-year manager Charlie Montoyo said.

Canada’s federal government refused to allow games at Toronto’s Rogers Centre this season, citing the closed Canada-U.S. border and the travel risk associated with the pandemic. Stuck on the road to start the season, the Blue Jays eventually ended up at their Triple-A ballpark, Sahlen Field in Buffalo, but didn’t gripe about their fate.

“They never complained,” Montoyo said. “They had their mind set on getting to this moment right now.”

Blue Jays players embraced after Rafael Dolis struck out Aaron Hicks to end it, donning blue T-shirts that said “Respect Toronto.”

“This is something we want to make an every year thing,” infielder Cavan Biggio said. “For us, we’re happy, we’re excited we’re able to put ourselves in this position, but this is only the start of hopefully something special for a long time.”

The Blue Jays trail the Yankees by two games for second place in the AL East. Both teams have three games remaining. Toronto hosts Baltimore in Buffalo this weekend while the Yankees host the Marlins.

New York failed to hit a homer for the fourth straight game, matching its longest streak since June 2016. It’s the first time the Yankees have failed to homer in a four-game series since doing so at Texas in July 2013.

“I’m concerned with the way we’ve played recently,” outfielder Brett Gardner said. “Any time you’re not playing your best baseball and the postseason is right around the corner, something needs to be corrected rather quickly.”

New York loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth, but pinch-hitter Gary Sanchez flied out to deep center, where Randal Grichuk made a leaping catch at the wall.

“It’s good to see him get a really good swing off in a big spot,” Boone said of Sanchez. “Just unfortunately, that short.”

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. homered for Toronto, his eighth.

Ryu (5-2) scattered five hits, walked two and struck out four. Luke Voit and Hicks hit back-to-back singles to begin the sixth but Ryu struck out Giancarlo Stanton, got Gleyber Torres to fly out, and retired Gio Urshela on a groundball.

“He’s an ace and he did what an ace does,” Montoyo said.

The left-hander lowered his ERA from 3.00 to 2.69.

Dolis got four outs for his fifth save in six chances.

Guerrero opened the scoring with a solo homer off left-hander Jordan Montgomery (2-3) in the second.

The Blue Jays extended their lead when Biggio and Bo Bichette hit back-to-back, two-out doubles in the third.

Toronto made it 4-0 in the sixth. Grichuk chased Montgomery with a single and Guerrero singled off Adam Ottavino before rookie Alejandro Kirk hit a two-out, two-run double.

Montgomery lost for the first time in four starts. He allowed three runs and six hits in 5 1/3 innings.

The Blue Jays finished 5-5 in their 10-game regular season series against the Yankees.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (elbow) was activated off the injured list and RHP Wilmer Font was designated for assignment. . RHP Jordan Romano (strained right middle finger) will throw a second bullpen session Friday.

Yankees: Aaron Judge came on as a pinch-hitter but is expected to start all three remaining regular season games, Boone said.

SHARED DUTY

Boone said he expects to use both Sanchez and Kyle Higashioka at catcher in the postseason. Higashioka has hit well while working with ace Gerrit Cole, while Sanchez has struggled with both offense and his defense down the stretch.

SEVEN UP

Ryu became the first Blue Jays starting pitcher since Aug. 22, 2019, to pitch into the seventh. It had been an MLB-record 88 games since RHP Jacob Waguespack pitched into the seventh at Dodger Stadium last year.

UP NEXT

Yankees: LHP J.A. Happ (2-2, 3.25) starts Friday as New York returns home to begin a three-game series against Miami. RHP Sandy Alcantara (3-2, 3.12) starts for the Marlins.

Blue Jays: RHP Taijuan Walker (4-3, 2.86) starts Friday in the opener of a three-game series against Baltimore. The Orioles have not named a starter.