DUNEDIN, Fla. — The final week of spring training is upon us and it’s been more than seven years since Marty Brown left Buffalo after three seasons as the Bisons’ manager that included the memorable 2004 International League championship campaign.
Now Brown is coming back as the skipper of the first Toronto Blue Jays-era team to call Coca-Cola Field home. The parent club has loaded up via the trade market to make a World Series run – and has filled the Triple-A roster with minor-league free agents and a couple key prospects to help Brown replicate the success he had while with the Cleveland Indians.
“I know what it can be like in Buffalo,” Brown said. “It was such a tremendous feeling walking off that field in ’04 after winning that championship and that’s a feeling the Blue Jays want to produce again. I want to bring that into Buffalo this year to guys who haven’t been a part of that.”
“Marty is a legend in Buffalo. I saw his picture up there last year when I was there with the Mets,” said first baseman/outfielder Adam Loewen, who played for the Herd last year while in the Mets chain but might be squeezed out to Double-A New Hampshire by all the depth Toronto has. “He’s great to play for. He’s laid back, gives you a lot of room to do the things you need and learn the game. He’s a good teacher.”
While there are veterans expected to be all over the Buffalo roster, the focal points will be young outfielders Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra. Both spent time last year between Triple-A Las Vegas and Toronto and Sierra was a standout in the World Baseball Classic for the champion Dominican Republic, making a leaping catch of a foul pop in the stands at San Francisco’s AT&T Park during a semifinal win over the Netherlands.
“It’s so exciting to have those guys again,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of expectations on them. We want them to get off to good starts and be ready to go to the big leagues at any time. And the classic was great for Mo. That was quite an environment for him and he performed really well.”
The Blue Jays are so loaded that their biggest issues in camp are who will fill the No. 5 starter slot (J.A. Happ or Ricky Romero) and who will be the backup catcher (Henry Blanco or Josh Thole). Happ threw six shutout innings here Friday to lower his spring ERA to 1.86 and has repeatedly said he doesn’t know what else he can do to earn a spot.
Romero, meanwhile, continues to be a trainwreck. Romero, who averaged 14 wins a year from 2009-2011, suddenly lost it last year with a 13-game losing streak and had a 7.27 ERA this spring. He gave up four runs to Pittsburgh Class A hitters Thursday and threw just 29 of his 64 pitches for strikes. The Jays have been steadfast in their support of Romero but manager John Gibbons cracked open the door to a possible switch Friday.
“I can definitely understand the argument,” Gibbons said. “[Happ] has pitched very good, Ricky’s struggled. We’ll see how it all plays out.”
Happ, who went 10-11 last year between Houston and Toronto and was 12-4 for the 2009 National League champion Philadelphia Phillies, is expected to be the Opening Day starter for the Bisons on April 4 against Rochester in Coca-Cola Field if he is sent to Triple-A.
“I certainly have motivation to go out there and throw well,” Happ said. “… You always feel like it could be better but I definitely feel good about the way it’s gone. I’ve established I could come in and throw strikes using all of my pitches. ”
It looks like Blanco will win the job backing up J.P. Arencibia behind the plate. That means former Mets farmhands Thole and Mike Nickeas will likely reprise their roles in Buffalo.
“This camp has been a blast all spring, an absolute blast,” said Thole, who played 291 games for the Mets the last three seasons and caught Johan Santana’s no-hitter. “There’s so many players from different organizations coming in that I thought it would take a while for it to jell but this is kind of a speeding-up process. It’s been impressive.”
The Bisons gave Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay plenty of trouble Saturday morning during a 3-0 win over the Lehigh Valley IronPigs in nearby Clearwater. Halladay, who is struggling with reduced velocity and the effects of a stomach virus, retired just seven of 18 hitters and touched 90 mph just once. He allowed three runs, although the first inning was cut short with the bases loaded due to a spring training pitch limit.
Lefty Sean Nolin allowed just two hits in five shutout innings to earn the win. The Bisons scored all three of their runs in the first off Halladay. Sierra and catcher Sean Ochinko had RBI doubles. Infielder Mike McCoy went 3 for 4.
“My goal today going in was to feel good, be strong all the way through, to feel like my arm slot was repeating, and I felt like that was there,” Halladay told Phillies beat reporters. “… It’s going to be something that’s going to be important for me during the season – to be able to go hard and soft counts.”
The Bisons have a 3-6-1 record heading into today’s game against the Indianapolis Indians at 1 p.m. at Pittsburgh’s Pirate City complex in Bradenton.
After facing Halladay, the Bisons could see another big name this week in Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. He is being limited to minor-league games so the Yankees can backdate a possible stint on the disabled list for him if his injured ankle doesn’t allow him to make Opening Day. He could play the Herd on Thursday at 1 at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa.