[attach]6992[/attach]Toronto Maple Leafs catcher Damon Topolie’s debut as a player/manager went about as well as he could have dreamed with his squad’s thumping of the London Majors.
The May 5 home opener, a 9–4 victory, saw many incumbent Leafs return from last year’s .500 season. However, the team was clicking at the plate and in the field, which greatly pleased Topolie.
“[Maple Leaf owner] Jack [Domenico has] been bugging me for the last few years, ‘When are you gonna stop playing and start managing?’ ” said Topolie, who has been with the team for 14-seasons. “This is sort of a transition, I guess you can say. I don’t have that many years [left], I’m on the back years of my career.”
Domenico wanted a clean slate, and saw Topolie as a stable, knowledgeable replacement for ex-manager Tim Harkness, who Topolie observed had many internal conflicts with the roster.
“Last year was a difficult year for us and we had a lot of young guys and I thought it was disrespectful a lot of the ways the guys handled Timmy [Harkness],” said Topolie. “The guys didn’t respect him. The guy played in the big leagues, you got to show respect.
“Timmy’s still involved with the organization and I’m going to lean on him for advice. It was positive, but I felt terrible for him because he was sort of left on an island.”
With the new role, and support from teammate and former player/coach Kevin Hinton, Topolie looked to get the rust off his pitchers, and encourage patient hitting in the box.
The pitchers did have noticeable rust. Leafs starter Marek Deska, who went 8–2 last season with 78 strikeouts in 81 innings pitched, gave up four hits in three innings pitched.
[attach]6993[/attach]Cameron Grey, a power right-hander, made fans especially nervous, allowing three runs and walking two batters in the seventh.
“I’m not disappointed with Cam Grey’s outing at all,” Topolie said. “He had a bit of nerves and hadn’t pitched on a mound in a regular game in two years.
“Scott Kelly came in and did what he does all the time: clean up the mess.”
Brett Lawson and Adam Garner showed mettle, solid in backing up Deska, and Kelly pitched two run-less innings after Grey’s shaky debut.
“We added a couple new arms this year, to strengthen up the roster a bit,” said Garner. “I don’t think we had the kind of season we wanted to have, getting out in the first round. But, this year, we look a little bit stronger.”
The bats also came to life, but only after the bottom of the lineup took up the task. After the Majors went up 1–0 in the fourth with an RBI double by Parris Austin, the Leafs scored five right away, including a homerun by second baseman Rob Gillis.
“We manufactured runs early, even though we got down a little bit, we came right back and answered the bell,” Topolie said.
Leafs outfielder Tyler Fata, frustrated by two strikeouts early in the game, took a hip-high pitch to the wall for a stand-up double.
“It was great, it was a couple strikeouts, [he was] pitching some good pitches, I ended up swinging through them,” Fata said. “The double felt great, just got a good pitch to hit, pretty good swing on it.
“It was an elevated fastball, that’s what I look for when I’m up there, I tax fastballs and it was a good pitch to hit.”
The win kicks off the Maple Leafs’ 45th season.