Every player enters the new season with high hopes, having worked tirelessly in the off-season to be ready to start the season strong on Opening Day.
For Blue Jays pitcher Josh DeGraaf, the 2018 season didn't start the way he had planned.
During this afternoon's contest against the Clearwater Threshers, the first pitch DeGraaf threw to leadoff hitter Mickey Moniak was laced into centerfield for a single. Later in the inning, 1B Darick Hall, C Edgar Cabral, and DH Wilson Garcia strung together back-to-back-to back hits, driving in three runs and putting Dunedin in a quick 3-0 hole at Dunedin Stadium.
"They're kind of an ambush team," DeGraaf said after the game. "They hunt heaters. I wasn't disappointed with too many pitches I threw. I got behind a couple guys, so after that first inning my focus was on getting ahead and mixing it up more."
With the auspicious start to the season behind him, DeGraaf settled into the same groove he had during the second half of Dunedin's 2017 when he won 7 games in the second half and posted a strong 3.01 ERA while helping lead Dunedin to the Florida State League title. Over the next five innings, he allowed just one hit, finishing the afternoon with a quality start.
"It was about settling it. I really started to feel on top of the ball with my fastball, hitting spots. I mixed in my changeup and slider to both right and left-handed hitters and that ended up working out well and keeping them off balance. I just tried to be efficient. I was shooting for six innings knowing I had a 75-pitch limit. I wanted to at least get into the sixth, but luckily had some efficient innings at the end and that helped out a lot."
With DeGraaf putting up zeroes after the first, the Blue Jays offense stepped up behind him. In the fourth, D.J. Davis drilled a double to centerfield, his second double of the day, scoring 3B Ivan Castillo from first. RF Joshua Palacios followed with a double of his own, scoring Davis and cutting the Clearwater lead to 3-2.
With Dunedin still trailing by a run in the sixth, 1B Nash Knight launched a solo homer to right field, his second of the season, tying the game. After C Alberto Mineo walked, Castillo doubled down the line in right, putting two runners in scoring position. A single by Palacios plated Castillo and gave Dunedin the 4-3 lead.
LHP Travis Bergen entered in relief of DeGraaf in the seventh inning and was perfect, throwing both the seventh and the eighth without allowing a hit or walk while striking out three. LHP Kirby Snead locked down his second save of the season by retiring Clearwater 1-2-3 in the ninth, striking out the game's final hitter.
Offensively, Palacios extended his early-season hitting streak to four games and had multiple hits for the third time in four games this year, finishing 3-5 with a double and two RBIs.
"My approach has been pretty simple," Palacios said postgame about his hot start to the season. "I'm just looking to get a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it. I'm trying to work my counts and get the right pitch to hit."
As a team, the Jays knocked 10 hits with Palacios, Castillo, and Davis accounting for seven of them, including four doubles. Knight also finished with two hits with a double in addition to his home run.
Having taken three games out of their four-game set with Clearwater, the Blue Jays will head on the road next week. They will play a four-game series at Palm Beach against the Cardinals, the team they shared the 2017 Florida State League Co-Championship with, before heading to St. Lucie to play the Mets three times. RHP Justin Dillon will be on the mound for Monday's opener in Palm Beach at 6:30 PM.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.