THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO — Dwayne Murphy could see it every time Jose Bautista swung the bat.
The Toronto Blue Jays outfielder was getting started too late in the batter’s box, forcing him to use his shoulders rather than his hands when attacking the ball, making his swing long and wild. Rather than going through the ball, he was going around it, leaving him vulnerable on the plate’s inner half.
Bautista had heard similar criticism from coaches before, but was never really sure what they meant, or what to do about it. So one day in the Rogers Centre weight room last July, Murphy pulled Bautista aside, gave him a bat and told him to swing in front of a mirror.
It was there the 29-year-old’s slow transformation from journeyman bench player to unlikely big-league home run leader began.
"It’s not easy to get across to guys," says Murphy, the Blue Jays hitting coach. "It sounds easy — ‘just get started earlier’ — but they’ve always started at a certain point. You’re talking about a little fraction of a second.
"In the weight room, I said, ‘Come here, I want to show you something,’ and I showed him in the mirror the way his shoulders went and the way he was swinging."
For the first time in his career, what he was hearing from his coach made sense to Bautista. Countless hours in the video room with Murphy and manager Cito Gaston followed, and during games the skipper would call Bautista over and show him when successful hitters got started.
The flaws in his own swing quickly became evident.
"The way I used to hit before, the ball was on top of me so my swing looked out of control and reckless at times, just because I was trying to catch up to the baseball," says Bautista, who began play Monday with 16 home runs. "By getting ready earlier, it allows me to have my normal swing aggressive still, but not out of control.
"It never was explained to me in the way these guys did it. It didn’t make sense in my head when they’d say you’re getting ready too late, I didn’t know how to fix it. They didn’t pinpoint and explain it to me in a way that I would understand it the way Cito and Murph did."
Putting the changes into practice, however, was easier said than done.
The Blue Jays acquired Bautista from the Pirates in August 2008 when Alex Anthopoulos, then an assistant to former GM J.P. Ricciardi, saw his name come up on the revocable waiver wire. After getting Ricciardi’s blessing, Anthopoulos put in a claim for Bautista and worked out a deal that would send minor-league catcher Robinzon Diaz to Pittsburgh.
They were intrigued by Bautista’s power and above-average defence at several positions, but didn’t expect he’d be much more than an effective bench player. But Gaston felt the Blue Jays had something more there if his swing could be fixed, and when Bautista committed himself to making the adjustments, the manager made sure to give him extra playing time.
That allowed Bautista to experiment in games without worrying whether or not a bad night would cost him future playing time. And when Alex Rios was given away to the Chicago White Sox on waivers, Bautista found himself with regular playing time for the final month of the 2009 season.
Since Sept. 1, he leads all major-leaguers with 26 home runs.
"I remember sitting there in the video room looking at the film, comparing it to other people, and wording it the way they did, it just made total sense," says Bautista. "But it’s one thing for it to make sense in your head, another to go out and do it. Even in the cage, you have an issue of trust at the beginning, because you want to adjust your swing to the theories you have because it doesn’t feel right. You’ve been doing the same thing over and over for so long, that it just feels weird and awkward but you have to trust in it."
And not get caught up in his current success.
As quickly as the home runs have come for Bautista, they can dry up in a similarly sudden fashion, and there are no shortage of skeptics who are waiting for reality to strike. Either way, all the six-foot, 195-pound Dominican, who will make US$2.4 million this season, can do is stick to his approach and hope his timing remains right.
"It was a pretty long process," he says of his transformation. "That being said, I feel good and I know what I have to do to be ready but I have to remain consistent.
"I always thought I was able to be an everyday player and be productive, but you never know. When you trust your abilities and you know how good you can be, you try not to be greedy, or cocky to think I can hit 35 home runs or do this or do that.
"You try to get that chance and try to make the best of it and then go from the results."
TERRIFIC TY : Nearly as surprising as Jose Bautista leading the majors in home runs two months into the season is Baltimore Orioles utilityman Ty Wigginton tied for fourth with 13 dingers.
The 32-year-old has bounced around the majors — the Orioles are his fifth team — and while he has had a couple of big seasons, ripping a career-best 24 home runs for Tampa Bay in 2006, his current pace is unprecedented for him.
"I just think I’ve executed my plan more often than not," he says. "Going back to the ’06 season, I’ve pretty much stuck to the same plan, or approach, with minor tweaks here and there which everybody does in the game, and it’s just worked out."
Wigginton’s unexpected level of production has been one of the few bright spots in a dismal season Orioles season so far. He’s likely to be the team’s only all-star, something he refuses to think about.
"Doesn’t even enter my mind, has no impact on what I’m trying to accomplish at the plate each night," he says. "I just want to be mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the game and know I gave what I had."
CRUNCH TIME : The national junior team is back home from its Dominican Summer League tour and has only one final camp and exhibition series left before the World Junior Baseball Championship on July 23-Aug. 1 in Thunder Bay, Ont.
The juniors went 3-4-2 on the tour, an important building block for the both the championship and the players’ careers. The team’s final camp runs July 4-22, starting in Toronto before games in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Minnesota.