ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — One year after coming to Tropicana Field as a guest of Chris Archer on opening day, Toronto pitcher Marcus Stroman returned to beat the Tampa Bay Rays ace.
The young right-hander who started last season on the disabled list allowed three runs and six hits over eight-plus innings Sunday, outpitching his close friend and helping the Blue Jays begin defense of their first AL East title in 22 years with a 5-3 victory.
Stroman was rehabbing from surgery on his left knee in nearby Dunedin, Florida, when he accepted an invitation to watch Archer make the first opening day start of his career. Stroman’s buddy struck out 12 in five innings this time, but the Blue Jays starter was much more efficient in coming within three outs of joining Jack Morris as the only Toronto pitcher with a complete game on opening day.
“I want to finish games. That’s the mentality. That’s the motto,” Stroman said. “It didn’t work out, but I look forward to getting out there the next time and going nine.”
Troy Tulowitzki hit the first home run of the 2016 MLB season, a two-run shot for Toronto. Edwin Encarnacion had two hits and drove in two runs after not having an at-bat in a major league exhibition game all spring training because of injuries.
The Blue Jays, the highest-scoring team in the majors last year, struck quickly on Encarnacion’s two-run single in the first.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that the first inning I was a little off. I always want to go more than five innings, but I understand that you can’t be perfect every inning, every game,” Archer said.
“I was happy with how I bounced back, how the team fought to the end,” the 2015 All-Star said. “Overall, I wish I could have done a better job in the first inning, probably would have helped us out later. … The opposing pitcher was dealing. It’s tough to put up runs against anybody throwing the baseball that well.”
Archer set a club record for strikeouts on opening day, and Rays pitchers fanned 16 overall.
Evan Longoria had two hits and drove in Tampa Bay’s first run with a third-inning single. Offseason acquisition Corey Dickerson added a solo homer off Stroman leading off the ninth, and Kevin Kiermaier drove in the final run charged to the starter with a bloop single off Roberto Osuna.
Osuna got three outs for a save.
At 24 years, 338 days old, Stroman became the third-youngest pitcher to make an opening day start for the Blue Jays. He earned the assignment after making just four starts, going 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA, in 2015, when he missed most of the season after injuring his left knee during spring training.
“He competes as well as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Tulowitzki said. “When Stro takes the mound, it’s different. He raises the bar and makes you want to match his energy. Just the swag that he has is second to none, really.”
Archer, who set a club record with 252 strikeouts last season, fanned the most batters on opening day since Seattle’s Felix Hernandez struck out 12 against Oakland on April 2, 2007.
“Well-pitched ballgame. Really well pitched,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
“Stroman had everything going. … He made it tough,” Cash added. “Like the way Archer competed after he got through that first inning, and just kind of seemed to turn it on there. Racked up a bunch of strikeouts. But with the way (Stroman) was pitching on their end, there wasn’t a ton to be done.”
Blue Jays: Encarnacion was in the lineup as the designated hitter. He was slowed early in spring training by an abscessed tooth and limited to minor league games the final week of camp with a strained oblique muscle. Toronto manager John Gibbons expects Encarnacion to play some at first base this season. “Does him some good to get him out there occasionally,” Gibbons said.
Rays: With the exception of losing closer Brad Boxberger for at least the opening month of the season following groin surgery, Tampa Bay emerged from spring training fairly healthy. Boxberger was an All-Star and the AL saves leader a year ago. Several relievers, including Alex Colome, will get an opportunity to finish games while Boxberger is out.
George Wendt III, best known for playing Norm in the hit television series “Cheers” from 1982-93, threw out the ceremonial first pitch, bouncing a toss to the plate from in front of the mound.
Blue Jays: Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey starts the second game of a four-game series Monday night. He was 11-11 with a 3.91 ERA in 2015.
Rays: LHP Drew Smyly, 5-2 with a 3.11 ERA in 12 starts last season, starts Monday. He’s 1-0 with a 1.10 ERA in five career appearances, including two starts, against Toronto.