TORONTO – Seasons of frustration and disappointment are breeding grounds for finger-pointing and blame-laying, and within that prism an appreciation of what Jose Bautista has accomplished and continues to accomplish has largely, unfairly been lost.
Without doubt, the Toronto Blue Jays icon at 36 is no longer as dominant a slugger as the one who throughout this decade terrorized opponents across the majors. Time spares no one. Yet as injuries have ravaged the club, Bautista has managed to play in all but one of his team’s 116 games this year, a pillar of stability amid the roster chaos around him.
And he’s produced, even if not as consistently as he has in the past, or to the levels he still expects of himself, which has led him to grind and deal with more frustration than usual. But his current stretch of home runs in three straight games – including No. 20 this season in Friday’s 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates – and four in five outings is a reminder that opponents must still respect his prowess.
“Sometimes your swing and how you feel allow you to pull the trigger how you want and make contact more often on the pull side, but sometimes you just don’t. Sometimes your pitch recognition is there, sometimes it’s not,” said Bautista. “My consistency has fluctuated this year more than ever in how I feel at the plate rhythm-wise, how I can manipulate the bat. That’s part of the game, I guess, it’s just hard sometimes to make the adjustments quick enough, sometimes you make too many adjustments, too quick.”
“It’s funny, I feel there have been swings in how pitchers are attacking me, drastic ones, from the first month to the second month to the third month,” he added. “It’s a matter of adjusting quick and when they make another change just do it. I just haven’t been as good at it this year as I have in the past.”
An ability to anticipate pitchers’ tendencies, counter the way he’s attacked and completely control the strike zone is what made Bautista into a six-time all-star, and join Carlos Delgado as the only Blue Jays to hit at least 20 home runs in eight straight seasons.
The milestone shot came on a hanging curveball from Jameson Taillon over the wall in right-centre to open the bottom of the third – right after the Pirates scored four unearned run in the top half to mar a brilliant performance from Marcus Stroman.
Bautista is also one of only four active big-leaguers with at least eight straight years of 20 home runs, joining Nelson Cruz, Brian McCann, both with nine, and Giancarlo Stanton.
That’s some solid company, and a reminder of what he can still be. But with the Blue Jays unable to maintain any sort of sustained consistency in any realm of the game, and extraordinary efforts needed to overcome the bevy of injuries that have led to underperformance throughout the lineup, it’s been easy to lose sight of that.
“It doesn’t matter. I should be able as a professional veteran hitter to make the adjustments I need to make to stay consistent,” Bautista said of being impacted by the struggles around him. “I’m not saying my numbers should be Aaron Judge’s numbers right now – he’s having a tremendous year. But I definitely could have contributed better and more with the opportunities I’ve gotten from my teammates, so I’m not going to blame them, either. I will tell you this: if the whole lineup one through nine is clicking like we were in ’15, everybody does better. That’s just a general observation, not necessarily something I believe could have helped me be better. I just haven’t been good enough. That’s it.”
Bautista’s accomplishment Friday was, to some degree, overshadowed by the destructive third inning, when a questionable hit by pitch on John Jaso that survived a replay review and a pair of crucial Rob Refsnyder errors at second base led to the only four runs Stroman would allow in eight innings of work.
Stroman had no-hit stuff to that point, should have been out of the inning with no damage at 37 pitches, ended up throwing 14 more that frame, and cruised afterwards. He allowed only four hits and a walk with four strikeouts.
“I was doing my best job to battle. Defence has my back all year. They’ve made unbelievable plays for me all year. I felt like I should have done a better job in that situation of buckling down and getting my team out of that,” said Stroman. “It’s a tough inning, but my stuff felt great.”
For good measure, Russell Martin left the game with a left oblique strain in the second inning, another worry for a team already far too stocked with problems.
Bautista, for those paying attention, isn’t one of them.
“Jose’s as durable as anyone I’ve ever managed,” said manager John Gibbons. “He comes to play every day. When he’s banged up, he’ll even tell you. He gets paid to play. He honours that part of it. He’s played through some injuries, had a couple of injuries last year there’s nothing you can do about, but he’s gone out there many a time beat up. There’s never any whining out of him. He’s done a great job for this organization. He’ll be up on that wall someday. And I may even come back to see it.”
He’ll be far from the only one.