Strong Bautista start key to Jays chances

February 27, 2014 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

Sure the fifth starter is important. Yes J.A. Happ needs to pitch well. Second base must get settled, too. And the bench is a big question mark. But without a strong and productive Jose Bautista, the other issues won’t matter very much for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Wednesday in Toronto’s Grapefruit League opener against the Philadelphia Phillies—with his first swing against a big-league pitcher since August 20—the All-Star slugger hit a home run that literally sailed out of Bright House Field, and helped put apprehensive minds at ease.

While his teammates took the impressive drive in stride—“Standard,” was how Brett Lawrie described it—for Bautista to come charging out of the gate can only be a good thing. He also walked and grounded into a double play in three at-bats before leaving a 4-3 win shortened to 6-½ innings by rain. “It felt pretty good, I can’t deny that,” Bautista said of the homer.

A hip injury caused by an awkward landing on home plate ended Bautista’s 2013 season prematurely. While surgery wasn’t needed, the torque he creates rotating his body while swinging meant his recovery was closely monitored. The past two years he’s gotten off to slow starts, and while a good spring is no sure harbinger of a carry-over into the regular season, even Bautista is surprised at how he feels at the plate compared to previous springs. “For whatever reason, I feel like I’m seeing the ball better,” he said. “I’m not complaining.”

Neither were the Blue Jays, who received several other contributions of note on this day—including Melky Cabrera delivering a hit, a walk and scoring from second on an Adam Lind single. Cabrera was also challenged in the outfield, chasing down a fly ball the wind grabbed hold of and recovering to make the catch. Last year, manager John Gibbons said, the ball probably falls in.

Todd Redmond’s two clean innings of work made a nice opening statement for his argument for the fifth starter’s job. He worked quickly and efficiently to cut down down the Phillies after Happ laboured through a 37 pitch first inning.

Redmond may not have the long-term upside of a Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman or Kyle Drabek—who was frustrated after walking three batters in 1.2 innings of work—but, at minimum, he’s a solid long-reliever/swingman type. “All we’ve ever seen out of him is good pitching, and he gets guys out,” said Gibbons. “It’s been a long time coming for him and he knows he’s got a shot here.”

The 28-year-old logged 77 innings over 17 games—14 of them starts—for the Jays last season and recorded a 4.32 ERA, but arrived at camp looking leaner than last season. “I did my best this off-season to prepare. I knew I’d be fighting for that fifth spot, or a job in the bullpen. That was my mindset.”

Bautista’s mindset seems especially upbeat this spring—lots of smiles, laughs and chirps for his teammates. During the workouts preceding Grapefruit League play, he alternated between high-energy banter with Jose Reyes in Spanish and offering tips and feedback to teammates around the diamond. “I don’t feel like I’m doing anything different,” he replied when asked if he felt some extra pep. “I enjoy spending time with the guys on the field and in the clubhouse. I haven’t seen these guys in a while. It’s just normal for everyone to be a little more giddy right when camp starts.”

Gibbons kidded about how Bautista is always “barking at somebody—whether it’s enthusiasm or barking at the umps, he’s never quiet.” But there’s no joking about his importance to the team. The combination of Bautista and Encarnacion at 3-4 in the batting order will drive this team, especially if Reyes and Cabrera can get on base in front of them.

Gibbons insisted that, although the Jays are monitoring how Bautista is running, the manager wasn’t uneasy about the hip. “Last year when he came into camp coming off the wrist problem, we were a little more concerned about that. Jose’s a hard-working dude. He looks good. A big key for this team is we’ve got to keep him out there for six months.”

Or, in ideal world, seven months. But it’s all baby steps for the Blue Jays right now, an impressive opening from Bautista notwithstanding.

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