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A hot Bautista could send Jays soaring
Don’t feel lonely, Albert. You’re in great company: Jose Bautista finished April with a .181 batting average.
“Albert is probably the best offensive player, ever, in the first 11 years of anybody’s career,” Bautista told me Tuesday, after the miserable month (finally, mercifully) drew to a close. “I’m not worried about Albert. I’m sure he’s not worried about himself, either.
“Maybe his confidence is not where it should be. Maybe his aggressiveness is not where it should be, because of his confidence being down. But at the end of the year, I’m sure his numbers are going to be just fine.”
With that, I’d like to welcome you to the second installment of our Slumping Sluggers Series.
OK, not really. This isn’t a FOXSports.com exposé on frustrated fans and the stars who disappoint them. It was by geographic happenstance that I spoke with Albert Pujols and Bautista, both stricken with the April malaise, during the same four-day period.
Of the two, Bautista provided a more lucid account of his symptoms and the possible remedies for his affliction. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s been the first to show signs of recovery. By that, I mean Bautista belted a home run Tuesday that on an open-roof night could have landed on a runway at Pearson Airport.
And since statements beginning with "if" carry slightly more credence in May than April, here’s one to consider: If the Toronto Blue Jays are about to welcome back the Bautista of 2010 and 2011, then it’s possible for them to remain in American League wild-card contention.
Yes. This year.
The Jays have been playing footsie with fan expectations for years. They aren’t rebuilding. They aren’t going all-in for a championship in 2012, either, although the second wild card changes the calculus. Had it been instituted in 2010, the Blue Jays would have finished only four games out of a playoff spot. This team, sitting three games back of Tampa Bay at 13-11, isn’t that far away.
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After a thrifty offseason, the Jays seemed likely to take another Gentleman’s C in the American League East. But consider these developments since the season began: Boston stumbled early, resulting in scrum-like parity; Tampa Bay lost Evan Longoria for six to eight weeks because of a hamstring injury; and Toronto’s young rotation outperformed early expectations.
“I don’t see how the Rays are better offensively than we are, and they are based on pitching and defense,” Bautista said. “If we continue to pitch the way we have, and play good defense, then we should be right there. I don’t see why not.
“Before, it was a two-team race. Now it’s three with the Rays. Hopefully, starting this year, it’s four with us. I’m not really too worried about the Orioles. Whatever happens to them, happens to them.
“We want to be in the playoffs, year after year, and hopefully win the World Series soon. We’re a very confident group. We’re not shying away from any matchups. We don’t play any team feeling like we don’t have a shot. And I can’t say that’s been the case on teams I’ve been with in the past.”
Please note that Bautista issued this declaration before denting the third deck with a Neftali Feliz slider in Tuesday’s 8-7 walk-off win over the Texas Rangers. It was Bautista’s fourth of the season, giving him four more than Pujols, who is tied with me.
It’s trite to say one swing has cured Bautista, but the eureka! moment may be at hand. He showed self-awareness in our pregame conversation, at one point saying, “I might be a little bit too aggressive right now.”
He continued: “It’s all about picking and choosing your pitches to swing at — being patient enough to not swing at the borderline or good pitchers’ pitches, and swinging at the ones you should be trying to take advantage of. I haven’t been good enough at that. That’s why I’ve been taking bad swings. The pitches I’ve been choosing to swing at, the only way you can try to make contact (on them) is by having bad swings.”
Bautista listened to his own advice Tuesday. He was more selective. Therefore, he was more successful: 1 for 3 with a walk and a hard lineout to right field. “My timing is coming back,” he said afterward.
Pujols may want to check the video.
“More like himself,” Toronto manager John Farrell said of Bautista’s night. “I think, more than anything, hopefully it’s a chance for him to just take a deep breath and take the weight off his shoulders. He’s been pressing. There’s no doubt about it. Sometimes you look at the elite players around the game and think they’re automatic. But they’re human.”
It’s possible that Bautista is, for the first time, absorbing the pressure of what it means to be a superstar on a team that’s supposed to win — if not this year, then soon. He has become more demonstrative on the field this season, with umpires and himself. “Playing with emotion is what drives me,” he said. “I’m going to have to play like that for the rest of my career.”
Apparently, Bautista senses that the cheers for him in Toronto are not as genuine as they once were. About four hours before Tuesday’s first pitch, he tweeted @JoeyBats19: “I wonder how many of the same people who are bashing me now will be my #TwitterBuddies later? #MuchoLove Thanks real fans for the support.”
Asked about the tweet after Tuesday’s game, Bautista said, “I have no regrets about tweeting that. It was what it was. That’s it. I said what I had to say.”
You could call that an egotistical social media strategy. I see something else: Bautista is well aware of how good the Blue Jays can be, if he approximates his 2010-11 production. Edwin Encarnacion is hitting. Brett Lawrie is emerging. Kyle Drabek is developing. But Bautista is the one man capable of carrying the Jays for weeks at a time. If he plays like an MVP over the final five months, Toronto could see meaningful September baseball for the first time in years.
For Tuesday’s outburst to have meaning, though, Bautista must continue his choosy hitting during the Jays’ upcoming three-city road trip.
First stop: Fort Pujols, Anaheim.
Might Bautista commiserate with Pujols during the trip? Maybe offer a few pointers on how to get his swing back into form?
“Absolutely not,” Bautista said. “I wouldn’t even feel comfortable making any recommendations to somebody like him. He’s on a different level as a player, as a hitter.
“He knows what to correct — kind of like me.”
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