DUNEDIN, Fla. — It was suggested to Kevin Pillar that this was yet another indication of his progress from 32nd-round pick and a guy demoted at one time because of a dugout fit in front of his manager: that his status was so solid he could afford to make a trip to Tampa to face triple-A pitchers for seven at-bats in which he did nothing but – wait for it – attempt to bunt for a base hit.
It’s a skill that the Toronto Blue Jays centre-fielder acknowledges will never be a major part of his arsenal, yet one that he’s tinkered with all spring, trying to essentially rebuild his technique based on a video of Rajai Davis. Sunday was the test drive, and it flopped. I mean, cratered. This really is a humbling game.
“Now I have to go back to the drawing board,” Pillar said, shrugging. “It worked for me great on the back fields in Dunedin. Naturally the body moves a little more with the adrenaline of a game … I’ve either got to incorporate a little more movement into my bunting or slow my feet down a bit.
“[Bunting] is something we talked about since Day 1, and I’ve been working mostly on bunting off a machine. We just finally got a day when I wasn’t playing and there was an opportunity to do it.”
Pillar’s day wasn’t simply busywork. With the Grapefruit League schedule putting the Blue Jays in Bradenton, Pillar was given the day off and went to Tampa with the Blue Jays' triple-A working group, in part to accompany teammate Devon Travis. Pillar recorded Travis’ at-bats on an iPhone, helping coaches Brook Jacoby and Tim Leiper, who attended the games in civvies – but also because he wanted to try out his new bunt technique against triple-A pitchers as opposed to single-A pitchers. Why?
“When I was rehabbing last season I played in a single-A game and the last two pitches I saw nearly hit me,” Pillar said. “You have pitchers with more control and more experience in these triple-A games.”
Leiper recorded each of Pillar's attempted bunts, and huddled with him on a walkway between the minor-league fields as fans walked by. The Blue Jays haven’t settled on a lineup yet – things should be clarified this week with the return of Jose Bautista from the World Baseball Classic and Josh Donaldson’s debut on Monday – but Pillar is putting together the kind of spring that makes him a candidate to lead off if Travis starts the season on the disabled list.
You won’t see him turn into a bunting fool, however. “Forty or 50 times a year … not going to happen,” he said. “This is, if anything, a secret weapon.”
It’s also a reflection of the luxury of not having to fight for a job; a reflection of how far Pillar has come.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• Blue Jays bullpen coach Dane Johnson said that closer Roberto Osuna is expected to pitch Wednesday in Dunedin against the Detroit Tigers after what he called a “very good” one-inning stint Saturday at the Blue Jays minor-league complex. “He used everything … no issues,” said Johnson, who understands that Osuna’s miserable inning in Mexico’s first game of the World Baseball Classic – he didn’t retire any of the four batters he faced – raised red flags even though Johnson chalked it up to being too amped up too early in the season.
• The guessing game continues as to the Blue Jays rotation – not its composition, but as to the order and who gets the start in Baltimore on opening day, April 3, and where it goes from there – although at this time it looks as if Marco Estrada will get the nod, followed by J.A. Happ and possibly Marcus Stroman. The Blue Jays have come to the conclusion it makes more sense to go easy with Aaron Sanchez at the start of the season as opposed to the end, so it’s likely that Sanchez won’t start until the Jays go to Tampa for a four-game series before returning home.
• That was quite a way for the Columbus Blue Jackets to become the second team to clinch a playoff berth Sunday afternoon: a 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils in a game in which Lukas Sedlak and Brandon Dubinsky scored on penalty shots. The Elias Sports Bureau says it’s only the third time that’s happened in NHL history, along with the Vancouver Canucks in 1982 and San Jose Sharks in 2009. Referee Kerry Fraser awarded Thomas Gradin and Ivan Hlinka penalty shots for the Canucks on Feb. 11, 1982 and they both scored against the Detroit Red Wings' Gilles Gilbert; the Sharks goals were scored by Joe Thornton and Ryane Clowe on Dec. 30, 2009 against Michal Neuvirth, then of the Washington Capitals.
A PEAK AT THE WEEK
• NBA: Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics. The Wizards can win the season series (they lead 2-1) and heap more pressure on the Eastern Conference’s second-place team that fell to the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday. Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas has missed two games with a bone bruise and is doubtful for this one.
• NHL: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs. Still a measuring stick for the Leafs, the third-place Bruins can bump their lead over the second wild-card Leafs to five points.
• NBA: Chicago Bulls at Toronto Raptors. Feeling good this morning, eh, Raptors fans? (Breaks into lunatic laughter …)
• International Friendlies: Canada at Scotland; England at Germany. New Canadian manager Octavio Zambrano told me on Friday that he wants players who “aren’t afraid to be protagonists.” Best to look away for the time being, Octavio. Meanwhile … England will face an old rival for the first time just days after manager Gareth Southgate dropped Wayne Rooney from the squad and told him he would have to battle for his place on the team in the future and – oh yeah, forget the captaincy. These things don’t always end well but it will be a happier day for Germany’s Lukas Podolski, who will retire after collecting his 129th Germany cap.
• NHL: Calgary Flames at Nashville Predators. The Flames can put some extra room between the first and second wild-card spots and maybe keep alive a dream first-round matchup against the Edmonton Oilers.
• World Cup qualifying: Chile at Argentina. The hosts are in fifth place after 12 CONMEBOL matches with 19 points on five wins, four draws, one point behind the fourth-place Chileans. They’re life and death to score these days. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said this weekend that Alexis Sanchez’s ankle was in “a terrible state,” a bit like his own grip on the Arsenal job. Sanchez thinks so much of Wenger that he has joined the Chileans and is vowing to play.
• NHL: Ottawa Senators at Montreal Canadiens. Again?
• NBA: Washington Wizards at Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs rested LeBron and others this past weekend in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers with massive playoff implications in the Western Conference. It will be all hands on deck for this one. Prediction: the Wizards are the only team in the East that has a prayer of knocking off the Cavs in the playoffs. You read it here.
• GP of Australia: Lance Stroll, an 18-year-old from Montreal whose father is reported to have invested almost $80 million in getting his son an F1 seat, is one of the circuit’s bright young things. Jacques Villeneuve’s heir-apparent will drive for Williams in what will be the first F1 race under the auspices of U.S.-based Liberty Media, who have vowed to shake up a painfully predictable sport with all sorts of whizz-bang ‘Murican know-how. Beauty.
Interesting discussion with U.S. women’s hockey team captain Meghan Duggan on my show last week just after the team went public with a threat to boycott next week’s world championships in Plymouth, Mich.
USA Hockey’s response was typical of an organization with a tin ear to equitable funding issues – and shame on any player who answers their suggested call for “replacement players” to fill in. These women were smart: in addition to the world championships, the Winter Olympics are in South Korea next season and with NHL players increasingly unlikely to go there’s some added leverage to be found on the part of the U.S. women. NBC, which will show those games, cares more about narrative than results in its prime-time coverage. No women’s U.S. team alongside no NHL players would effectively kill hockey as a product in Pyeongchang.