Photo credit:© Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
The 2023 Blue Jays Retrospective – Part I: Yusei Kikuchi dominates Spring Training, Matt Chapman wins April MVP, and more!
By Evan Stack2 months ago
With 2023 winding to an end, let’s take this time to look back on the year that was for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Over the course of a few parts, I’ll be going through what happened during one of the most controversial Blue Jays seasons in recent memory. Part I of the 2023 Blue Jays Retrospective encapsulates their Spring Training campaign through the end of April.
Yusei Kikuchi starts his revenge tour in Spring Training
The Blue Jays ended their Spring Training with a 17-15 record, fifth place in the Grapefruit League.
After a miserable 2022 season, the Blue Jays decided to hand Yusei Kikuchi the ball to open up Spring Training against the Pittsburgh Pirates. While it may not sound like the most prestigious of honours, it was still the first chance that the team and the fans had to see if 2023 Kikuchi (now bearded) had improved. He passed that test easily, allowing no runs and striking out five batters over two innings. Kikuchi wound up appearing in seven Spring Training games, pitching to the tune of a 0.87 ERA, 31 strikeouts versus 10 walks, and a 0.92 WHIP across 20.2 innings.
Again, nobody is handing out the Spring Training Cy Young award, but imagine how it would’ve been had Kikuchi pitched poorly during those outings. Kikuchi wanted to be better, and he put it on display for his teammates to see.
Opening Day thriller in St. Louis
As Major League Baseball debuted the pitch clock in 2023, how funny is it that Toronto’s first game of the year lasted 3 hours and 38 minutes?
Two World Series hopefuls in the Blue Jays and Cardinals squared off in St. Louis on Opening Day, a game that featured Cardinals legend Adam Wainwright performing the National Anthem. The Blue Jays jumped on Miles Mikolas in the opening frame, scoring three runs on a Daulton Varsho double and a two-run single from Alejandro Kirk.
Both starting pitchers in the game – Mikolas and Alek Manoah – lasted only 3.1 innings in their respective starts, as both squads registered five runs in the first four innings. Back and forth they went between the fifth and ninth innings, that time frame featured five lead changes and four ties. It was Toronto who got the last laugh, however, as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had three RBIs between the 8th and 9th innings that keyed a 10-9 win.
Toronto logged 19 hits on the day, including a five-hit day for George Springer, and a four-hit game for Bo Bichette, and a three-hit game for Matt Chapman. The team’s 19 hits set a franchise record for a Blue Jays Opening Day game.
Matt Chapman wins AL Player of the Month
No other Blue Jay had as hot of an offensive streak last year as Matt Chapman did in April. Throughout his games that month plus Opening Day in St. Louis, Chapman slashed .384/.465/.687 with a 1.152 OPS, 5 home runs, 21 RBIs, 15 doubles, and 38 total hits. He was averaging nearly 1.5 hits per game, and he had eight multi-hit games in his first 12 games of the season.
Coupling his tremendous offensive outputs with his usual defensive prowess (only two errors in the month of April), and you’ve got yourself the American League Player of the Month. Not only did this assist the Blue Jays’ 18-10 start, but it also kickstarted his resume for his offseason bout with free agency. At that point in the season, Chapman was even giving the Blue Jays a reason to skip the free agency avenue altogether and sign him to an extension right then and there.
Chapman was a catalyst in one of the wilder games of the season on April 9th, with the Blue Jays defeating the Angels 12-11 in 10 innings. The Angels jumped out to a 6-0 lead after five innings, and the Blue Jays were having little to no success against LA lefty Reid Detmers. However, in the sixth inning, Toronto worked the bases loaded and set the table for Chapman, who already had a single and a walk to that point in the game.
Chapman did exactly what he had done all month and came through, hitting a grand slam to right center field to cut Los Angeles’ lead to only two. Two ties, two lead changes, and several relief pitchers later, and the Blue Jays won a critical early season series in Anaheim.
Rogers Center renovations are welcomed to a win
The Blue Jays started their 2023 season with 10 consecutive road games, but they were welcomed home on April 11th to nearly 50,000 fans. It was also the first time they played at the newly-renovated Rogers Centre. Although just the first step of a $300 million multi-year project, the outfield dimensions and social spaces were adjusted nicely to promote an atmosphere with increased fan engagement.
Home openers bring a lot of excitement to the fan base and the home team themselves, but it was evident that Kevin Kiermaier may have been the most excited of all the Blue Jays players. He took that energy and replicated it on the field, with no better example being a classic home run robbery of Kerry Carpenter in the top of the second inning. For years, Blue Jays fans had to watch Kiermaier make those kinds of plays against them as a member of the Rays. It was satisfying to watch him make that play for the Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays trailed 3-0 entering the bottom of the 2nd after a Nick Mason three-run homer, but the Jays got regained control with the long ball. Alejandro Kirk’s RBI single got Toronto on the board in the 2nd, and Matt Chapman (of course) crushed a solo home run to bring the deficit down to one. Kiermaier added to his stellar night in the 5th inning with a solo homer to right field, and George Springer went back-to-back with Kiermaier to give the Blue Jays the lead for good.
Kirk would put a bow on the night with a three-run shot in the 8th inning, and the Blue Jays would win the game 9-3. It marked their second consecutive home-opener victory.
Notable April performances
Kevin Gausman – 6 GS, 4-2 record, 2.33 ERA, three games with 11+ strikeouts.
Yusei Kikuchi – 5 GS, 4-0 record, 3.00 ERA, four starts allowing one run or fewer.
Bo Bichette – 28 G, .317/.354/.508, .863 OPS, 38 H, 6 HR, 18 RBIs.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – 28 G, .309/.394/.491, .885 OPS, 34 H, 5 HR, 13 RBIs.
Chris Bassitt – 3.03 ERA in the five starts following his 9 ER outing in St. Louis on April 2nd.
Team – On April 14th, the Blue Jays defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 6-3, ending Tampa’s 13-0 start to the season.
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