Blue Jays notebook: Healthy Smoak reaching base at impressive rate

Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

OAKLAND – If there’s been one constant for the Toronto Blue Jays during a generally slow start to the season at the plate, it’s been Justin Smoak.

Now in his fifth season with the Blue Jays, Smoak has quietly posted an .876 OPS in the early going. He’s been especially productive of late, reaching base in 20 of his last 39 plate appearances since returning from the neck stiffness that sidelined him for a few days earlier in the month.

“He’s just a good hitter, man,” manager Charlie Montoyo said recently. “Our lineup’s a lot better when he’s in it, being a switch-hitter. That’s just a fact.”

Smoak aggravated his neck diving for a ball on the artificial turf at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium late in spring training. Normally, stiffness would disappear quickly with treatment, but not after landing on a playing surface Smoak generously describes as “a little bit of a liability.”

“As soon as I hit the turf I felt it,” he said. “The first week of the season I was really grinding through it and it got to a point that I could hardly turn left or right.”

Eventually, treatment worked and Smoak returned to the lineup after four days off. In the nine games since, Smoak has nine hits and ten walks for a .321/.513/.607 batting line.

“I’m better now,” he said. “So hopefully it’s just a little bump in the road.”

Smoak hits free agency after the season, and at age 32 he likely doesn’t fit in the Blue Jays’ long-term plans. As such, they may eventually trade the switch-hitter, who’s two home runs away from 100 in a Blue Jays uniform.

“I didn’t even know that,” Smoak said. “Yeah, that is a lot of homers. I feel like, to be able to be close to that at the beginning of my fifth year, that’s always a good sign.”

Even with Smoak’s production, the Blue Jays rank 13th among the 15 American League teams in runs scored. Thankfully for Montoyo, the likes of Randal Grichuk and Teoscar Hernandez are showing signs of breaking out, too.

“They’re all swinging the bat pretty good right now,” Montoyo said. “It’s been great. I knew they were coming.”

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Since debuting last year, Willians Astudillo of the Twins has been the toughest hitter in baseball to strike out. The super-utility player has whiffed just 3.0 per cent of the time — less than half as often as the next-hardest player to whiff, Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons (7.6 per cent).

So how do you pitch to someone who’s so adept at making contact?

“Just keep the ball down,” Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez said. “Force him to put the ball on the ground. I even threw a change-up below the zone and he lined out to left. Great plate awareness. Handles the bat extremely well. You’ve just got to keep him honest and probably not stay in any one area for too long, since he’ll probably adjust to that, so you move the ball around and see what he gives you.”

To make sure his players know what’s expected of them, Montoyo emails out the following day’s starting lineup every night. That way the players can prepare accordingly with the caveat that last-minute changes can always happen.

“I say be ready to play just in case because somebody could get hurt, so you’re off, but be ready just in case,” he said. “I made sure I said that. So I think it’s good [for] people to relax a bit — ‘I have tomorrow off, I can come and do weights and stuff.’ But there’s always a chance you could play. Someone could be sick or something.”

Devon Travis (knee surgery) began a hitting progression with some tee work this week. He hasn’t experienced any issues so far but his presence on the 60-day DL means he’ll be sidelined until May 27 at the earliest … Clayton Richard (knee) started a throwing progression with light catch last weekend. He’ll continue building up from there, but his return doesn’t appear to be imminent.

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