PHILADELPHIA — The championship Edwin Encarnacion won with the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic was the sixth of his career, adding to the three titles he collected with Santiago’s Aguillas in winter ball, and two others he collected in the minors on his way to the big-leagues.
All that remains for the Toronto Blue Jays slugger is a World Series.
“Yeah,” he said with a grin Friday before a 1-0 exhibition win over the Philadelphia Phillies. “That’s the big one now.”
The 30-year-old first baseman will need to play an integral role in making that happen, as he prepares to start the season as the Blue Jays’ cleanup hitter, a first for him in the big-leagues. He’s batted fourth 163 times in total so far, 77 of them during his breakout 2012, 70 of them for the Cincinnati Reds before he was traded over in 2009.
“I hit sometimes between Ken Griffey Jr., and Adam Dunn,” Encarnacion recalled, “but this is new for me.
“This is going to be big for me, because it’s a different Edwin Encarnacion now in baseball, it’s the Edwin Encarnacion I wanted three, four, five years ago. I feel ready, I feel excited, I can’t wait for the season to start. All my career I had a lot of hard times in this game, this game is not easy, but you have to make adjustments, you have to keep working hard and things are going to change, like they happened to me.”
Certainly much has changed for the native of La Romana, Domincan Republic, who joined the Blue Jays in that trade with the Reds as a salary dump attached to then prospects Zach Stewart and Josh Roenicke. He struggled for much of 2010 and again to start ’11, carrying over defensive misplays at third base into his at-bats, leading to further woes at the plate.
Still, Encarnacion showed flashes of the power that carried him to a career best 42 homers last year, and combined with his low strikeout totals for someone with that kind of thunder in his bat, he intrigued the Blue Jays enough to keep giving him chances to figure things out.
Towards the middle of 2011 Encarnacion, helped along by a conversation with GM Alex Anthopoulos, made a conscious effort to become more selective at the plate, since his ability to make contact with pitches all over the place was actually working against him.
Last year, he arrived at camp having adjusted his swing to finish with two hands, a tweak that made him shorter and quicker to the ball.
The combination helped Encarnacion reach the potential long foreseen in him, but considered a lost cause by many.
“More my mind,” he said when asked what was more important, the changes in approach or in his swing. “This game, you have to use your mind a lot.”
Helping Encarnacion further refine that area of his game was Jose Bautista, whom he had known from their days playing against each other in the minor-leagues and become very close with on the Blue Jays.
Encarnacion started sitting in on his rigorous pre-game video sessions, picking up how Bautista tracked the tendencies and sequence patterns of opposing pitchers, and used it to his advantage.
“I watched video before, but not the way we watch it,” Encarnacion said of their work every day for 20-30 minutes either before or after batting practice. “We study the video of every pitcher; that makes you go the plate with an idea what the pitcher is going to throw you.
“I watch every pitcher throwing against right-handed hitters, I focus on that, I pull all the video for the last five, 10 starts to see how they throw to right-handers.”
It’s how, aside from the 42 home runs, Encarnacion also ripped 24 doubles, batted .280/.384/.557 with 84 walks against 94 strikeouts last season. A decent chunk of that damage came with the Blue Jays lineup thinned out badly by injuries, and the sense is he’ll thrive even more with Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera and a healthy Bautista in front of him, and a reinvigorated Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia behind him.
“He’s one of the key guys for this team,” said manager John Gibbons. “The key to good teams is that they have more than just one guy in the middle.
“Otherwise, if you just have the one guy in the middle who’s dangerous, you can be a little bit more careful with him. Here they can’t do that with Bautista necessarily because Eddie can come and burn you as well.”
The Blue Jays are counting on it, and with Encarnacion having already celebrated one championship this year, he’s certainly got the appetite for another.