Jays come out swinging in Cito's return
Club sets season highs in runs, hits in Gaston's first home game
TORONTO -- The chants started quietly enough during the fifth inning on Tuesday night, but as more and more Blue Jays fans joined in, celebrating the return of Cito Gaston, Rogers Centre began to roar with a loud rhythmic cry of the manager's name.
"It gives you goosebumps," Gaston said softly. "Tonight was a special night for me. It's just great to be back."
Those on hand for Toronto's win might be primed to anoint Gaston as savior of the struggling franchise, considering all those offensive problems that have dogged the Blue Jays all season long seemed to evaporate in a 14-1 drubbing of the Reds.
At that, Gaston just smiles, knowing that it isn't as simple as flipping a switch. There's still a long road ahead in Toronto's quest to turn its season around.
"I wish I could turn a switch," said Gaston, who took over for John Gibbons on Friday. "I'd turn it on full force, if I could, for the rest of the season."
With Gaston making his first trip to the Blue Jays dugout as the club's manager since 1997, Toronto's offense came out in full force against Cincinnati. The Jays (37-41) plated 11 runs over the first two innings, finishing with a season-high and churning out 22 hits along the way.
It was the most hits in a game since May 16, 2003, for the Blue Jays, who tallied a season-high 35 total bases and matched a season best with three homers in the game. All three of those blasts came within the opening two innings -- one each from Scott Rolen, Gregg Zaun and Alex Rios.
Offense has been sparse this season for the Jays, and that's one reason that Gibbons and hitting coach Gary Denbo lost their jobs. In came Gaston, who brought hitting coach Gene Tenace along with him to help deliver a simple message to Toronto's hitters.
"Gene came in and just said, 'Hey, don't think. Swing the bat,'" Toronto center fielder Vernon Wells said. "He knew we had some problems, obviously, throughout the season, and he just kind of tried to simplify everything.
"He said, 'If you get a pitch, take a hack at it. Whatever happens after that, happens.'"
What happened Tuesday night was an offensive onslaught unlike any other Toronto has experienced this season.
|"There's something to [having Cito Gaston back]. We had a little meeting before our advance meetings and he kind of put things in perspective. ... He just kind of just makes sense when you're talking hitting."|
-- First baseman |
The beneficiary of all the support was Blue Jays right-hander A.J. Burnett (7-7), whose eight-inning gem against the Reds (35-43)would be easy to overlook. Burnett scattered four hits, allowed just one run on a sacrifice fly in the second inning, and finished with seven strikeouts in the win.
Burnett was strong, but the offense stole the story. Could the explanation for the sudden explosion of runs -- Toronto also scored eight in a win over Pittsburgh on Sunday -- be as simple as having Gaston around again?
"There's something to it," Toronto first baseman Lyle Overbay said. "We had a little meeting before our advance meetings and he kind of put things in perspective. ... He just kind of just makes sense when you're talking hitting."
Needless to say, it was a memorable night for Gaston. He's certainly had plenty of those in his time with the Blue Jays, who he first managed from 1989-97.
There are four banners hanging high in the rafters above center field at Rogers Centre that provide constant reminders of Gaston's accomplishments with Toronto. American League East titles in 1989 and '91. World Series championships in '92 and '93.
Above right field, on the facing of the second deck, Gaston's name is a part of the club's Level of Excellence. Two spaces to the right of his name is that of Paul Beeston -- the Jays' president during Gaston's first stint as manager -- who was on hand on Tuesday and spent a couple hours before the game with Gaston.
Gaston had a desire to manage again, and that's why he said it only took him but 10 minutes to agree to accept the opening in Toronto. He doesn't believe there's any reason that the Jays can't turn this season around, but Gaston is sticking to short-term goals for the time being.
"If we can get back to .500 before the All-Star break, that'd be great," Gaston said. "If we can't, we're not going to panic. We'll just keep going and, you never know.
"In 1989, we started 12-24. We managed to come back and make the playoffs anyway. But we didn't go any further -- my guys were spent."
Toronto isn't looking that far ahead this season. But even the Blue Jays' players admitted they sense a good vibe circulating through the stadium as an effect of Gaston being back with the ballclub.
"There was definitely a better feeling; they love Cito here," Overbay said. "When they were chanting, I kind of looked at him and said, 'Who? Who are they talking about?'
"That just shows you how much respect they have for him. And the same goes for all of us around here. We come in and you have the utmost respect for that guy."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.