Blue Jays beat up Rangers in baseball's season opener

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays 8, Texas Rangers 1

It was the perfect debut for rookie manager Buck Martinez and his Toronto Blue Jays.

The first game of the 2001 Major League Baseball season wasn't much of a contest, as starting pitcher Esteban Loaiza shut down the Texas Rangers and Shannon Stewart and Tony Batista hit homers as the Jays cruised to a 8-1 win in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Sunday.

With a capacity crowd of 19,891 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium hoping that one of its homegrown stars such as Carlos Delgado, Ivan Rodriguez or Jose Cruz Jr. would play the role of hero, it was a guy that Mexico that stole the show.

Filling the shoes of departed David Wells and assuming the role of ace, Loaiza (1-0) was deadly against his former team, allowing eight hits and striking out nine in seven solid innings.

"I'm really excited with the way I pitched," said Loaiza, acquired from Texas last season. "I really wanted to perform like I did today.

"Pitching against my former team was really exciting. I didn't know what was going to happen. They have a great lineup."

Pitching in his first career opening day assignment, the 30-year-old righthander also managed to break the club strikeout record of seven shared by past Blue Jay greats Dave Stieb (1983) and Jack Morris (1992).

"I think Esteban has the ability to be a premier pitcher," Martinez said. "The Texas Rangers have a really good lineup. You just can't afford them too many opportunities.

"He was very focused on what he wanted to do. He had a game plan and stayed with it. He pitched ahead and finished at-bats very effectively."

Pedro Borbon and Kelvim Escobar combined on a hitless eighth before closer Billy Koch got the final three outs.

The game was played in a party-like atmosphere seldom seen in major league parks. Fans danced between innings to salsa music, while the melodic sound of bongo drums echoed throughout the refurbished stadium.

The pre-game ceremonies had a true taste of Puerto Rico, with salsa dancers doing a number in the infield to the tunes of a Latin America band performing on a stage set up near second base.

After all three anthems were sung - the American, the Canadian and Puerto Rican - Roberto Clemente's widow, Vera Clemente and Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda threw out the ceremonial first pitches.

Roberto Clemente's No. 21 and Cepeda's No. 30 were retired as well.

Sunday's game was a special occasion for many reasons. In addition to Major League Baseball making an appearance in Puerto Rico, one of the big stories was the debut of Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who signed a 10-year, $252-million US contact in the summer, singled in his first two at-bats, but his first regular-season appearance proved to be less than memorable as he failed to make three routine plays in the field.

"There were some good things -- a couple of hits," he said. "There was a little bit of everything: error, slip, hit. First game, there's 161 to go. You just have to move on."

Starting pitching is expected to be one of the big holes in the Blue Jays' roster this season. If the team is expected to challenge for a post-season berth this season, it will need the offence to pull it out of some tough games.

If the first game is any indication, the offence looked like it is willing to take on the responsibility. Toronto pounded out 13 hits against the Texas pitching staff, including five for extra bases.

Like Toronto, Texas entered the regular season with many questions about its pitching staff and whether it was strong enough for the Rangers to compete in the playoffs.

With the exception of a few bad pitches, Texas starter Rick Helling (0-1) looked solid, allowing four runs and six hits in six innings, but the relief pitcher Mark Petkovsek looked horrible as he failed to retire a batter in the seventh and was tagged for four runs.

The Rangers struck first and scored their only run in the game in the top of the first when Rafael Palmeiro followed up on a Rodriguez single with a double down the left-field line that Stewart had trouble fielding.

Stewart made up for the miscue in the third. With two out and no one on, Stewart pounded a Helling pitch into the right-field seats.

After getting Bo Porter to strike out and Rusty Greer to ground out to end a threat in the top of the fourth, the Jays responded by taking the lead in the bottom half of the inning.

With Brad Fullmer on first, Batista lofted a lazy fly ball that carried over the left-field fence.

"I felt great after hitting that homer," said Batista, a Dominican native. "That was a great moment."

Petkovsek took over for Helling in the seventh, but his first appearance of the regular season was one he would rather forget. Petkovsek promptly allowed a double to Homer Bush and a single to Stewart. Alex Gonzalez followed up with a single, scoring Bush to give Toronto a 5-1 lead.

After Raul Mondesi singled to load the bases, Rangers coach Johnny Oates replaced Petkovsek with Mike Venafro. The decision didn't make a difference as Delgado hit a bloop single to score Stewart and Fullmer hit a sacrifice fly to right to score Gonzalez and give the Jays a 7-1 lead.