Blue Jays need more from a vintage Reyes

Toronto Blue Jays' Jose Reyes. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

TORONTO – Jose Reyes bounded back and forth from second base for the better part of two at-bats in the third inning before finally breaking for third, comfortably swiping the bag. Moments later he crossed the plate on a Jose Bautista sacrifice fly and a 4-1 lead. Then in the fifth, after replay confirmed the Toronto Blue Jays shortstop had indeed been grazed on the leg by a pitch, he gave an already irritated A.J. Burnett fits before taking off for second, easily stealing another base. A wild pitch advanced him to third before he smartly came home on a Bautista groundout for a 5-2 edge.

The sequences in Thursday night’s 12-6 pounding of the Philadelphia Phillies were both vintage Reyes – a catalyst wreaking havoc and creating something from nothing. While the contributions were easily lost amid the offensive onslaught that followed, the two runs he helped scratch out provided R.A. Dickey with some important breathing room well before victory was assured, not to mention a reminder of just how dynamic and game-changing a force he can be.

The Blue Jays need that Reyes to both set the table for Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and to provide a small-ball alternative when the opposition manages to keep the big boys in the yard. His struggles since his April 19 activation from the disabled list have been largely masked by the damage being done by others, but the diversity of his game can make a difference.

“I know sooner or later, hopefully sooner, I’ll be hitting like normal,” Reyes says in an interview. “It’s good when the team scores a lot of runs, but I’m the leadoff hitter, if we don’t play too good, people are going to say, ‘Oh man, Reyes isn’t getting on base too much.’ Right now we’re playing good and hopefully I’ll start to get more on base, steal my bases, stuff like that.”

Even with a double, hit by pitch and two stolen bases Thursday, Reyes is batting just .179 with a .261 on-base percentage this season, a key reason why he’s swiped only four bags this season.

As he puts it with a wide grin, “You can’t steal first base, you know?”

“I haven’t had too much opportunity,” he adds, “but as soon as I start to get on base, there are going to be more stolen bases because my legs feel really good right now.”

That, of course, bodes well for the Blue Jays, but only if a bat that’s run hot and cold gets going on a more consistent basis. Bad luck has been a factor – as indicated by his batting average on balls in play of .179, down dramatically from his career average of .310 – but so too is the type of contact he’s making.

At 10.8 percent, his line drive rate is down nearly 50 percent from his career norms, while his fly-ball rate of 50.8 is running about 15 percent higher than usual.

The culprit?

“Timing,” says Reyes. “Sometimes I try to be too quick with my hands, try to use my hands too much, and when you do that you’re going to get in trouble. You’re going to try to pull everything and I’m a guy who hits the ball all over the field. Right now I feel like I’m hitting the ball, from the left side at least, only to one side. That’s not me. I’m going to feel better when I start to shoot the ball to left field and through the middle.”

The sense from manager John Gibbons is that Reyes needs is more reps to get himself right after essentially opening the year on disabled list and being rushed through a quick rehabilitation assignment to get him through the lineup.

“He didn’t have a whole lot of at-bats,” notes the manager.

Still, supporting the notion that Reyes is nearing a breakout is that his walk rate is 9.6 percent, nearly 2.5 percent better than his career total, while the percentage of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone (27.8 percent) and most of his contact rates are in line with his typical numbers.

“I’m seeing a lot of pitches in my ABs, and they’re throwing me the pitch I’m looking for, but I’m not able to put the swing I want to on the baseball. That’s frustrating for me,” he says. “Sometimes I do, but I have to do it on a consistent basis. I haven’t so far been able to be consistent, that’s a problem.”

As for linking his slump to opening the season on the DL, Reyes isn’t having it.

“I like to do my job and I don’t care if I was on the DL, if my timing is not right, as soon as I step on the field I expect to do good and to help my ball club,” he says. “Last year I spent two months on the DL and when I came back I played good. So it’s no excuse, I just need to put it together on the field. That’s the only part I’m missing, is my timing hitting, everything else is perfect.”

That includes how the Blue Jays, winners of five straight heading into Friday’s series opener with the Los Angeles Angels, have been playing of late. The combination of improved starting pitching and explosive hitting has obviously proved fruitful, but Reyes sees other signs that make the current run more meaningful to him.

“We’re way different than what happened last year,” he says. “We knew we were struggling but some of the games we lost, that’s baseball, that can happen to any team in the big-leagues. But we’re fighting back and we’re putting it together. We know we had some tough losses, but we bounced back from that and last year we weren’t able to that. When you see that, you say, ‘Oh man, this team is on a mission this year.’ There are a lot of little things that we’re seeing this year that we didn’t see last year that I think is going to help our ball club get to the next level.”

A Reyes more like himself, more like the all-around the force he can be, will play a big role in that, too.

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