Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Toronto Blue Jays at Philadelphia Phillies - May 5-6, 2014

With Club 122 complete, it is time to take on new challenges. I plan to visit every minor league ballpark that I have yet to see over the next three years, but in the meantime, I have to find other games to keep me busy. One of my goals is to see the Blue Jays and Maple Leafs in every road city.  I've knocked off 22 of the 30 NHL rinks (including Atlanta), but just over half of the 29 MLB ballparks. So the summer of 2014 is a good time to see the Blue Jays on the road as much as possible. I already saw them play in Tampa Bay to start the season, but going forward, I have to concentrate on the National League parks as those games happen only every four or five years. So it was a no-brainer to head to Philadelphia this week to see Toronto in a two-game series, the first of a home-and-home with the Phillies.

Citizens Bank Park is one of the best new stadiums in the country. Well, new is a relative term as the ballpark opened in 2004, but it still looks untouched in some places. Outside you can find statues of Phillies greats such as Steve Carlton (above) and inside, you get plenty of space to walk around. Ashburn Alley is behind center field and includes the Wall of Fame and the starting lineup using gigantic baseball cards. Gates to this area open 2.5 hours before game time so make sure to stop by if it is your first time visiting. The upper deck behind the plate provides a nice view of the city (below) and is often empty enough to find an entire row to yourself. My favourite element though is the standing rails on the lower concourse, which fill up early as they provide great views of the game without having to spend the money to sit in the good seats.

The main problem here is that tickets are not cheap. I arrived for Monday's game quite early and was surprised that the cheapest ticket was $17 for standing room. I knew that I could get in for less than that, but didn't want to wait until close to game time. Fortunately, there was a gentleman with an extra who was trying to give it to a cop, who politely explained that he would not be able to use it as he was on duty. The guy had no idea what to do with an extra ticket, so I approached him and said "I'll take that". He looked at me strangely, perhaps considering whether to ask me for some cash. His friend, eager to get in and realizing that there was not a single other person around looking for a ticket, yelled "Just give it to him!". Yay! A free Blue Jays game! Even better, it was Dollar Dog night, so with two of those and a free soda courtesy of the designated driver program, I saw a major league game for $2. Of course, that includes the antics of the Phillie Phanatic, the best mascot in sports. That's him in green below, harassing the security guys during an inning break.

Although the ticket was for the lower deck beyond third base, it was a crowded section, so I moved upstairs where fans were few and far between. My buddies King and Vinny were there as well, in town as there were no MLB games in New York to keep them occupied, so I joined them. We were treated to a 3-0 Jays win, the team's 5th shutout of the season, all without a complete game. Jose Reyes led off with a home run and the Jays added another run later in the frame when Juan Francisco singled home Melky Cabrera. Josh Thole doubled home Colby Rasmus in the second and that was all the pitching staff needed. J.A. Happ started and went 5 solid innings before giving way to 4 relievers, each of whom pitched a single scoreless inning. Seeing your team shutout an opponent on the road is a rare pleasure and one that I have enjoyed twice this season.

The following night another sports road tripping buddy, Andrew Van Cleve, joined me. I had booked a bus back to New York for 11 pm, so I was hoping that extra innings would be avoided. When the Jays stormed to a 5-0 lead in support of Drew Hutchison, it looked like my wish would be granted. Then the Phillies came to bat in the 6th. After a double and two singles scored a run, Hutchison induced a pop out from Marlon Byrd and struck out Dominic Brown. I relaxed, but after John Mayberry Jr. walked as a pinch hitter, Hutchison made one mistake and Cody Asche hit it out for a game-tying grand slam. Andrew chortled at my misfortune while I pondered my options. There was a bus at 2:50 am for example. I did not want to miss the end of the game.

Sure enough, the next 3 innings were scoreless. Hutchison came back to throw two perfect frames, rewarding the faith of manager John Gibbons, who didn't panic after the bad inning. Then rookie Marcus Stroman (above) was brought in to pitch the ninth, only his second major league appearance. A one-out single by Asche was followed by a wild pitch and ground out to put the winning run on third. Stroman showed poise though and got Ben Revere to ground out to end the threat.

Toronto scored a run in the 10th when Cabrera and Jose Bautista singled to get things underway against Antonio Bastardo. After Edwin Encarnacion popped out, Bastardo unleashed his own wild pitch and when Francisco flew out to Revere, Cabrera raced home. The throw was horribly offline and Cabrera scored easily to make it 6-5. In the bottom half, Stroman remained in to face Carlos Ruiz and induced a weak grounder before being replaced by lefty Aaron Loup. He made both Chase Utley (above) and Ryan Howard look foolish, getting two more weak ground balls as the Jays completed the sweep in 3:06, giving me enough time to make my bus!

A perfect ending and the first Blue Jays series sweep I have seen in my life. Winning sweep that is. I saw them lose all 3 home games to Milwaukee during that catastrophic collapse in 1987 and I still remember that painful ride back to Waterloo, realizing that they were probably going to blow the division against Detroit. Just over 26 years later and I enjoyed the ride back home this time. Sure I don't expect the Jays to win the pennant, but after sweeping the Phils in Toronto as well, things are looking up for this club. I plan to see them in Cincinnati and Milwaukee later this year and hope things go just as well there too.



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