Notes: Thomas debuts in 'B' game
Jays slugger will play first Grapefruit League game on Friday
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The piece of rebar that was lying in the on-deck circle at Knology Park carried a message: Frank Thomas was about to make his debut with the Blue Jays.
The three-foot strip of steel was once used to reinforce concrete, but for the past 17 seasons, it's helped the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Thomas prepare for at-bats. Before every trip to the batter's box, the Big Hurt swings the rod, which weighs approximately 30 pounds.
"I wouldn't have a chance swinging that," said Toronto outfielder Reed Johnson, who was able to see Thomas' routine during a "B" game against Philadelphia on Thursday.
With two outs in the first inning and Johnson standing on third base, Thomas dropped the rebar and picked up the lumber. Phillies starter Adam Eaton fired a called strike on the first pitch to Thomas, but the Jays' new designated hitter lined the next offering into center field for an RBI single.
It was Thomas' first at-bat in a Spring Training contest, but the "B" game won't count in the Grapefruit League statistics or standings. Thomas will make his official spring debut on Friday, when the Blue Jays host the Astros.
Thomas waited until Thursday to appear in a game because he was using the early portion of Spring Training to build up the strength in his legs. After Toronto signed him to a two-year, $18.12 million deal in November, the club asked Thomas not to worry about running over the winter. Thomas also wanted to make sure he had enough batting practice before taking swings against opponents' pitching.
"Not running all offseason, I just wanted to make sure I was prepared to get out of the box and do everything I normally do comfortably," Thomas said. "I prefer to start late like this, because you know what you're doing out there."
Thomas, who finished 1-for-3, was caught looking on three straight pitches during a strikeout in the third inning. He also had a hard-hit line out to center field later in the game.
"The second at-bat there, I was trying to work the count, but [Eaton] didn't give me a chance," laughed Thomas. "Those were great pitches, but I wasn't ready to hit yet. I was really trying to just work the count. That didn't work out too well."
In the first inning, Toronto could've used a pinch-runner for Thomas, because the rules in a "B" game are flexible. He didn't mind staying in the game after the single, though. The severe ankle injury that limited Thomas to 108 games during the 2004-05 seasons is ancient history, as far as he's concerned.
"I'm fine. I'm ready to go," said Thomas, who had 39 home runs and 114 RBIs in 134 games with Oakland last season. "It's been two years now since that injury. It's all about getting in shape down here now."
Thomas served as Toronto's cleanup hitter against Philadelphia, and Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said after the game that the slugger would be the primary No. 4 hitter during the regular season.
Mixing more in: The time had come for A.J. Burnett to finally throw his curveball. So, in the third inning against the Phillies, the Toronto starter fired his first breaking ball of the spring toward home plate.
The baseball broke low and inside, and then bounced off the right foot of Philadelphia outfielder Gregg Dobbs, who unsuccessfully tried to skip out of the way.
"Go figure," Burnett said with a laugh.
Controlling the curveball is the least of Burnett's worries, though. Against the Phillies, Burnett wanted to focus on locating his fastball on both sides of the plate, which he did better as the game progressed. He also continued to work on his changeup, which he plans on using more often this season.
"How many times I use [the changeup] this year, that's still a question," Burnett said. "But I'm working on it enough where when there's that day where the curveball isn't on, or I'm not spotting the fastball very well, I'm going to have complete faith in this pitch."
Burnett said he only threw four curves, and he allowed three runs on four hits with two strikeouts and a walk in his second start of the spring. Burnett threw 50 pitches, including 31 for strikes, but the totals are all unofficial.
"I wasn't happy with my lanes," Burnett said. "I was kind of throwing the ball down the middle. I wasn't really hitting the corners, but then I started doing that better later on."
Back in the field: Johnson expects his back to still be stiff over the next week, but he felt good enough on Thursday to make his first game appearance of the spring. Johnson led off and started in left field against the Phillies, and he'll likely play at home against the Astros on Friday, too.
"I'm sure [Gibbons] will come and ask me how I'm feeling, but I'll be fine," said Johnson, who had no issues while throwing or taking batting practice this week. "I'm good for tomorrow, so I expect to be in there."
Johnson's lower back became tight early in Spring Training and the minor injury was also causing discomfort in his right oblique muscle. Johnson said that the only time the injury really presented an issue was when he was running out of the batter's box.
Alex Rios was also back in the outfield for the Blue Jays. Rios, who had been limited to DHing due to a sore right shoulder, started in center field in place of Vernon Wells. Gibbons said the injury was no longer an issue.
Nearly in order: Toronto's lineup against the Phillies on Thursday was just one player (Wells was given the day off) short of the group expected to start on Opening Day.
Johnson led off, followed by Rios, first baseman Lyle Overbay, Thomas, third baseman Troy Glaus, right fielder Matt Stairs, catcher Gregg Zaun, second baseman Aaron Hill and shortstop Royce Clayton.
Quotable: "I'm going to throw six curveballs instead of four." -- Burnett, joking when asked what the plan was for his next outing
Coming up: Toronto right-hander John Thomson is scheduled to make his second start of the spring when the Blue Jays host the Astros at 1:05 p.m. ET on Friday at Knology Park.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.