DUNEDIN, Florida - When Jose Bautista stepped in for his first at-bats of the spring in Sunday's game against Baltimore, there was a question that had to be answered.
Would his surgically repaired left wrist hold up? The answer: an emphatic yes. Bautista was at his finest in the third inning, cueing up a Troy Patton pitch and depositing it over the left-centrefield wall for a two-run home run. Bautista went 1-3 on the day, including a fly ball to the rightfield warning track in the first.
"I've said it all along, it feels good," said Bautista of his wrist. "I took a couple of big hacks today in good hitter's counts and it felt perfect. Just happy to be out there, getting ready for the season."
Bautista, 32, has spent three-plus seasons in Toronto dealing with questions and generating the right answers.
To wit, two years ago, following Bautista's 2010 breakout season when he led the majors with 54 home runs and 351 total bases, the question was could he do it again? It wasn't unreasonable, given Bautista was approaching age 30 and had unsuccessful stops in four organizations. But when he followed up in 2011 with 43 home runs and an OPS of 1.056, he put those doubts to rest and validated general manager Alex Anthopoulos' decision to give him a five-year, $65-million contract.
Concerns arose last April over whether Bautista had lost his swing when he hit three home runs, had 10 RBI and hit a paltry .181. When the slugger insisted he was close to regaining his timing, he backed his words with action. In 92 games, all but two pre-injury, Bautista had 27 home runs and 65 RBI. Prorate those numbers over a full 162 games and he was on pace for 47 home runs and 114 RBI.
Bautista tore a tendon sheath in his left wrist fouling off a pitch in a July 16 at Yankee Stadium. He would miss the next six weeks of action, returning August 24 for two games before shutting down for the remainder of the season. Bautista had surgery in September, worked through a four-month rehab program and has looked comfortable in early spring batting practice. He never had doubts about a complete recovery.
"When there's something wrong with your body, you feel it. We're used to knowing what feels good and what doesn't," said Bautista. "But I've always felt that even though it was sore in the beginning and I had to work to get my range of motion and strength back, I knew it was going to be fine because nothing felt out of place or weird or funny."
Bautista will not play for the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic, a decision made by the Blue Jays earlier this winter to protect their most important asset. Bautista previously expressed disappointment due to the tournament's importance in his homeland but always understood the team's reasoning.
Players use early spring games to settle back in to their routines – to see pitches, work counts and get comfortable in the batter's box. Bautista estimates he needs 50 plate appearances.
"I need repetition. Just because I've had good success doesn't mean anything. But I felt good about all three of my at-bats. Even in the last one I grounded out, I swung at two pitches in the zone aggressively."
Then Bautista pontificates on his approach at the plate. His words are a glimpse into the mind of one of the game's great power hitters.
"I always try to swing at what I believe in each at-bat is something that I can hit hard," said Bautista. "That doesn't mean it necessarily has to be a strike. In some counts, you're looking fastball or off-speed and even though it's not the perfect pitch location-wise, if you're confident that's what you're looking for and you get it, you go after it hard. It might be a ball but you might still hit it hard. Plate discipline is something you pick and choose in your game plan, what pitches you want to swing at and it all depends how you feel physically and what kind of approach you have that day. It's not like you can turn it on and off. It's all about that particular day and that particular pitcher. So I could have great plate discipline today and have bad plate discipline tomorrow. It doesn't build up and you get to a certain point and you stay the same way throughout the season. It's something you have to work on every single day."
Baustista on Farrell
Former Blue Jays manager John Farrell and third base coach Brian Butterfield will accompany the Red Sox to Monday's game at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Bautista has no hard feelings toward his former dugout boss.
"As a person, I like him. As a manager, I like him. He never did anything bad or wrong to me," said Bautista. "You can't blame somebody for having the desire to get to a certain place in his career. At least he said it and made it obvious and made it known to everybody. He had a chance to pursue his dream and I would rather him be there doing that then be with us and wanting to be there. I'll go say hi to him and talk to him, see what he's doing, see how he's feeling, normal chit chat and then I'm going to try to kick his ass."
- The other half of the Blue Jays split squad beat the Yankees 2-0 in Tampa on Sunday. Toronto starter J.A. Happ hit Curtis Granderson with a pitch, breaking the Yankees' centrefielder's forearm. Granderson will be out 10 weeks, meaning he'll miss the first month of the regular season.
- Spring training isn't just for players to work their way into an on-field groove. It's also an important time for a new coaching staff to work on its cohesiveness.
"We're working at it," said bench coach DeMarlo Hale. "You approach the early part of spring training a little differently. As you go later in to spring training, the numbers become shorter and you get closer to the team you're going to break with. There are guys who are going to help us during the season at some point. You start to form that in spring training and go on. It's a good feel here. The staff has worked very well, communicating, different departments, and that's one thing I'm very pleased with. As I've scheduled spring training here and tried to keep everyone on the same page, it's worked very well, I think."
Hale managed Sunday's split squad game versus the Orioles in Dunedin, which gave manager John Gibbons the chance to travel to Tampa for the tilt with the Yankees.
- Reliever Michael Schwimer, acquired Saturday in a trade with the Phillies, knows he's in tough to break camp with the Blue Jays.
"It's not hard to look at the roster and see that the bullpen has four or five veteran guys and three or four guys who are out of options," said Schwimer. "It doesn't take a real rocket scientist to figure out that I'm maybe not in the best position to make the team out of camp. Does that mean I'm not going to fight my ass off and try to compete for a job? No, I'm going to work and try to show them what I can do. I'm going to try to make their decision as hard as possible."
Schwimer, 27, is 6'8" and 240 pounds. The right-hander features a fastball, a changeup and a slider. A strikeout pitcher, he's added a sinker to his repertoire this spring to encourage more ground ball outs.
In 48.2 career major league innings, Schwimer has struck out 52 batters. In parts of five minor league seasons, Schwimer averaged 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
Oh, and there's that little thing about his last name.
"People automatically assume my name is David (after David Schwimmer, who played 'Ross' on Friends,) that's the funniest part."
- Eddie Murray, the great first baseman who starred for the Orioles in the 1980s, celebrated his 57th birthday on Sunday.