TORONTO – During Jose Bautista’s torrid April, opposing pitchers by and large decided they wanted no part of facing the Toronto Blue Jays slugger, rarely throwing him strikes and issuing him 30 walks over the season’s opening month.
Essentially, taking the bat from his hands, when possible, made lots of sense. Why would anyone take their chances with a locked-in all-star rather than someone else?
Yet, much to their detriment, opponents haven’t stopped pitching to Edwin Encarnacion in the same way through the course of his ludicrous May, extended Tuesday with his 14th home run of the month in a 9-6 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
The total matches Bautista’s franchise record for most homers in a single month, established back in June 2012, and the hard-hitting first baseman still has four games remaining to further inflate his video game stats line.
Remarkable stuff, but it all begs the question: Why on earth is Encarnacion still seeing any strikes?
"The only thing I can think of is that they still feel like they can get him out the way they were in the first month and they just haven’t been successful," says Bautista. "He’s been ready for whatever it is they’re throwing. He’s certainly squaring up enough balls, getting enough hits and hitting a lot of homers."
No arguments there, but one key factor may be the way the Blue Jays lineup performed collectively in April versus May. Had Encarnacion swung the bat last month the way he has this month, it would have been a whole lot harder for pitchers to avoid Bautista the way they did, and there’s been support for him both from batters getting on in front of him and teammates doing damage behind him.
As manager John Gibbons put it, "There hasn’t been a whole lot of breathing room in the middle of that lineup for opposing pitchers."
Consider that in May leadoff man Jose Reyes had an on-base percentage of .351 heading into Tuesday’s game, Melky Cabrera’s was .364 and Bautista’s was .369 in front of Encarnacion and that Juan Francisco led the charge of those following him with seven homers and 16 RBIs. Both he and Adam Lind went deep Tuesday.
Simply put, there often hasn’t been anywhere to put Encarnacion should a pitcher have wanted to pitch around him, and even when there has been a base open, the guys behind him have capitalized.
"Everyone is contributing so it’s harder for the opposition to dissect the lineup and walk a guy here to face the next guy, or whatever it is that they might try to strategize," says Bautista. "I’m sure it’s helped that Edwin has gone to bat enough time with people on base and if they walk him the bases are loaded for Francisco or (Adam) Lind, who are hitting the ball pretty good as well."
A perfect example of the dilemma other teams face came in the fourth inning, after Lind singled. Encarnacion was walked before Brett Lawrie and Dioner Navarro followed with RBI singles to erase an early 2-0 Rays lead.
Then in the fifth, after Lind’s two-run homer opened up a 5-2 advantage, Encarnacion followed by propelling his 16th of the season into the third deck in left field.
So really, what’s a pitcher to do?
"You just can’t walk him every time," says hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. "The situation dictates how hard you go at him. A lot of times when pitchers are trying to be careful is when they make mistakes, and I think that’s what is happening right now."
Another thing to consider is the way Encarnacion is simply outsmarting pitchers right now.
Take, for example, his two-homer game against Clay Buchholz of the Boston Red Sox last week. In his first at-bat, Encarnacion homered on a fastball, and figuring Buchholz would change his approach his next time up, waited on a curveball and sent that over the Green Monster his next time up.
"He was looking for it just because he knew they were going to be careful and maybe try to steal a strike on something off-speed," says Seitzer. "That’s the type of hitter he is, he does his homework on pitchers and he’s got a great feel for in-game situations.
"When you’re that quick and that smart with that kind of power, that’s what is going on right now."
Or, more aptly, going off, and showing no signs of slowing down.