Kevin Pillar doesn’t want to say that he used to be intimidated by Jose Bautista, except he kind of was.
As a 32nd-round draft pick in 2011, the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder had never even been to a major-league camp when he got called up to the big club last summer after racing through the Jays minor-league system.
When he finally made it he felt the need to keep his cleats on eggshells, as he arrived to a team frustrated by a season that had gone all wrong. He barely crossed paths with the face of the Blue Jays franchise, and when he did, it was at arm’s length.
“When I came up last year I probably only played two games with him and then he [went on the DL the rest of the year] with his hip injury,” Pillar said Tuesday. “He was still travelling with the team but last year with the big hype, I’m guessing he was disappointed not only with the way his year went but with how the team’s year went. I remember trying to ask him some questions and he was a little standoffish last year.”
Pillar saw another side of the Blue Jays slugger Monday afternoon before the Jays opened their three-game set with the Minnesota Twins. Bautista was in the batting cage next to Pillar’s in the bowels of Rogers Centre when he overheard the Jays rookie voicing his frustrations about the plight of the part-time player: the tension between feeling the need to produce to earn playing time, and the knowledge that pressing when you do get the chance almost inevitably guarantees you won’t produce.
Bautista jumped into the conversation, drawing on his own experience as a utility player prior to landing full-time work with the Blue Jays in 2010.
"You hear comments like ‘I only get to play once a week, I have to make the best of it,’" Bautista said. " … That sparks thoughts and memories in my head. I used to think I had to get three hits just to play the next day.
"It's hard to make that situation easy, because it’s not … Most of the time you don’t get the result so you have to focus on the process, but the situation he’s in makes you obsessed with the result and then you don’t get it and the focus isn’t on the effort and where it should be."
Experience is the best teacher, however. It was just that night that Pillar came to bat with one out and Toronto tied 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth and quickly went down 0-2. He had every reason to press at that point as his over-aggressive diving effort on a bloop single by the Twins' Kurt Suzuki turned into a double, allowing Suzuki to score the tying run on a flare over Brett Lawrie’s head at third base.
Pillar was desperate to make amends, but with Bautista’s words fresh in his head he took his foot off the gas a little bit on a 1-2 pitch from Twins reliever Casey Fien. He was rewarded as he got a bloop single of his own to drop – his first base hit with a runner in scoring position this season – to key the walk-off win.
There's no substitute like production for making someone feel like they are part of a team, but having one of the best players in baseball letting you know he feels your pain can go a long way, too.
"For him to do that [Monday] was huge for me, confidence wise," said Pillar. "Knowing that he wants me to be part of this team and feels like I am part of this team and my role could be significant in helping this team get to the post-season. It was awesome he took the time yesterday and had those words for me."
It is the definition of leadership – a category the Jays were thought to be lacking in at times last year as their season spun rapidly down the drain almost from the moment the team left Florida in the spring.
First and foremost Bautista has been leading by example, as demonstrated by his MLB-leading 51 walks going into Tuesday's game and his willingness to punch singles the other way, all part of a team-first approach at the plate preached by Jays hitting coach Kevin Seitzer.
"You need influential people to buy in," said Seitzer.
Has Bautista otherwise changed his approach with his teammates?
He claims he hasn’t, despite a few clear examples to the contrary -- the exchange with Pillar being one. Another was his dugout encouragement to Drew Hutchison in a recent start against the Detroit Tigers when the right-hander seemed frustrated after giving up a couple of hits in the second inning. Bautista caught him short, told to turn the page and focus on the next inning. Hutchison gave up just one more hit through seven innings and left the game without giving up a run that night.
Nothing to see here, says the Jays slugger.
"I think I'm doing less [leading]," says Bautista. "There's more veterans, there's less people here that need guidance. But there's a few nonetheless that do. But because of that, and other reasons, I think I've been doing less. I don't know why it's getting more noticed now."
Except Pillar noticed. He noticed when he arrived in Florida this year and found a team with lowered external expectations and an increased emphasis on proving doubters wrong, together.
"I didn’t really know what to expect going in; this was my first camp this year and being around those guys full time," said Pillar. " … but [Bautista] was great in spring training, very social, helping guys like me and [Anthony] Gose with footwork and talking situational hitting. Whatever wanted to share with the younger guys, he did."
The Blue Jays star reached out again this week and -- like all things -- when it comes to leadership, timing is everything.