CHICAGO – Less than three hours before first pitch, holding court with the media in his cramped office at U.S. Cellular Field, manager John Gibbons reclined in his office chair, picked up his lineup card and smirked.
"Looks much better, don't it? Looks much better."
Edwin Encarnacion was back after a 33-game absence with a strained right quadriceps. His return came two games and three days after Adam Lind's, who missed 28 games with a fractured right foot.
Now is the time.
Now is the time for the Blue Jays to emerge from a funk which has seen the club go 3-9, scoring only 30 runs in the club's first 12 games of August. The bodies you see are the bodies they will have the rest of the way, barring injury. There will be additions, if not a waiver claim or an unforeseen trade, come September 1 when the rosters expand to as many as 40 players.
Ryan Goins, optioned out when Lind returned and Anthony Gose, who's Buffalo bound to make room for Encarnacion, will certainly be back. There will be others, too, including possibly left-handed pitching prospect Daniel Norris, who's climbed each step of the ladder and is throwing lights-out baseball with the Bisons.
The key is Encarnacion. That he missed one day short of six weeks and still sits tied for seventh in baseball's home run race, with 26 and having only just been passed by the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo and the Angels' Mike Trout, is an indication of the season he's having. So are his career highs in OPS (.959) and OPS+ (162).
The slugger hit a first-pitch grand slam in his first at-bat for Buffalo on Wednesday night.
"I was surprised the way I was seeing the pitches, I've been seeing the pitches good in the four games in the Minor Leagues," said Encarnacion. "I was thinking it was going to be different with my timing and I saw the ball good right now and my timing is good. We'll see now, here."
Encarnacion started Friday night's game as the designated hitter. He said he's ready to play first base.
I'm almost 100 per cent. I'm just going to take a couple of more days to be 100 per cent but I'm ready to play," he said. "I don't feel any pain right now, I played four games down there and I feel great, no problem."
"He'll have to play a little bit of first base, but when he's running he'll be guarded a little bit," said Gibbons. "Can't do anything stupid."
The Jays entered Friday's play three games back of Seattle and Detroit for the American League's second wild card spot. Toronto must sweep the White Sox in order to avoid losing ground on any individual day this weekend because the Mariners are visiting the Tigers.
"We've got a chance," said Lind. "We're definitely good enough to be in the playoffs, but that doesn't mean anything, you've got to go out and win games."
Lind, who along with Casey Janssen has been a Blue Jay since 2006, was asked why he thought this team could give him his first crack at playoff ball.
"We were in first place for a couple of months," said Lind. "Some things fell apart but that's going to happen over the course of a season this long but we're solid everywhere. Good staff, good bullpen, good lineup. We don't really have a great piece to anything but we're solid across the board. Usually when that happens you're good enough to make the playoffs."
The decision to send out Gose is three-fold: first, he's gone to Buffalo on option, which means he can be recalled in 10 days. He's an outfielder and after Ryan Goins was sent out, the Jays had Gose and Reimold and only one backup infielder. Also, if one considered struggling Juan Francisco a candidate to be sent out, he'd first have to clear irrevocable waivers. By keeping him on the 40-man roster, the Jays assure a full allotment of inventory come September 1.
Gibbons acknowledged the threat of Francisco's power coming off the bench is worth it to keep him in the fold.
"I will say the last couple weeks he's had his struggles," said Gibbons. "But he's also thrown some decent at-bats together. We need him to get going, too, there's no question about that. (With EE & Lind coming back) we can slide him down a little bit and hope he catches a few of 'em."
If the Blue Jays are to be playing meaningful games in a month, they must salvage this road trip in its final two legs, Chicago and Milwaukee.
As far as the lineup goes, what you see is what you get from here on out. You're about to find out if it's good enough.