TORONTO — Matt Shoemaker’s first pitch of the game was high and tight to Danny Jansen, an offering that had the Toronto Blue Jays catcher — and on this night, leadoff hitter — turning his left shoulder and bracing for impact.
As those pitches always do, it drew a reaction from the opposition.
In this case, his own teammates.
You could hear every word of it throughout the building.
This is baseball’s new normal and the Jays, media and a handful of staffers inside Rogers Centre on Thursday night were privy to it for the first time.
“You’re probably going to hear everything,” Shoemaker said after throwing 60 pitches in Thursday night’s intra-squad game, a workload that will leave him in a good spot to be built up to around 100 pitches for his first regular season start. “That pitch was just you’re excited to be back out on a big-league field. Fastball down and away turns into that sometimes. Me and Jano were laughing about it. It’s going to be odd with the fans not being there.
“It’s definitely a different feel from a volume standpoint. We could hear some of the guys talking in the stands or somebody’s phone ringing, but the best part is that when you’re locked in you don’t hear anything, even if it’s quiet.”
The intra-squad simulation game was the first of many the Jays will put together over the next two weeks as they desperately try to get up to speed for the scheduled July 24 season opener in, of all places, Florida against the Tampa Bay Rays.
It’s an eerie baseball setting for everyone involved, but Bo Bichette didn’t seem to mind, taking Shoemaker into the second deck in left field early in the game.
Adjusting to that environment in a real game setting might take some time.
“We’re getting ready for a different kind of season,” Bichette said Thursday evening. “No fans, so when the season starts we’re going to have to learn how to create our own adrenaline. I guess we’re kind of practising that now. There’s not a whole lot of adrenaline when you’re facing your own teammates.”
By nature, athletes are competitive and that will likely take over at some point, but that immediate injection of adrenaline when the foot hits the top step of the dugout for the top of the first inning, thanks to the fans, is gone.
Players may have to find creative ways to stay in the game mentally.
“Once we get out there, it should be pretty easy,” Bichette said. “We still have to win that day and we’re still playing for our jobs, individually, too, if you want to call it a selfish standpoint. We want to win as a team and that should be enough, I would think. If not, we’ll figure it out during these couple of weeks.”
“Figuring things out” might be the slogan for the entire 2020 Major League Baseball season.
Everything feels different and nothing is certain.
After weeks of idle time, however, Bichette is focused on one thing, and even Jansen has said that the young shortstop has taken on a vocal leadership role, which comes as no shock to anyone who has spent time around the 22-year-old.
“I think just, bottom line, we have a lot of really good players in here,” Bichette said. “Short season, long season, I’ve told all of you guys plenty of times that I think we’re going to compete regardless, 162 or 60. I believe in everybody in here and I believe we’re a lot better than people think.”
As far as his hotel-to-stadium quarantine situation, it’s the last thing on Bichette’s mind.
“This is bigger than us,” he said. “Sometimes, we’re put in situations where we have to be out of our comfort zone and, I think, we’re all very willing to do that.”
MARTIN INTRODUCED TO MEDIA
One day after getting fifth-overall pick Austin Martin’s name on a contract, the Vanderbilt produced sat down with the media … from his Florida home via Zoom, of course.
Earlier in the day, Jays manager Charlie Montoyo confirmed the versatile 21-year-old would, indeed, be added to the team’s 60-man player pool shortly.
With nowhere else to develop, it was a no-brainer and Martin said he has “another” COVID-19 screening and hopes to be in Toronto over the next few days.
If everything goes smoothly with testing and his passport, Martin could find himself working out in a baseball setting for the first time since the NCAA season was shut down in March.
“Definitely a weird year this year,” Martin said. “I look at it as a positive thing. Having an opportunity to be able to be around those big league guys and just being able to pick their brains so early in my professional career is a great thing and I think it will help me in the long run.”
The Jays’ plan for Martin will be simple to start.
His checklist will be getting used to the environment, soaking up information from a big-league coaching staff, and getting to work at a number of positions.
Where, exactly, he’ll be working out most has yet to be revealed — he’ll eventually dabble at both middle infield spots, third base and likely centre field at some point — but Martin doesn’t care what position he’s playing.
“Not at all,” Martin said. “I’m just excited to get back on the field and play baseball.”
Bichette and Martin played youth baseball together growing up in Florida, but neither has much recollection of it.
After getting a team record $7 million signing bonus, he’s well-known now.
“I don’t remember him, to be honest,” Bichette said. “But we’re very excited to have him here. He seems like a really good player, and excited for him to come up to Toronto and start working out with us.”
Billed to have some of the best bat speed in the 2020 MLB Draft and an advanced approach at the plate, Martin likes to keep things simple.
See ball, hit ball, be aggressive.
“I think hitting is complicated enough as it is, so I just try to simplify everything,” said Martin, whose mother is a nurse, while his dad works as an air traffic controller. “When I’m in the box, I’m looking for a fastball, but if you hang a breaking ball, I’ll hit it.”