PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Physically, it was as if Steve Pearce had the body of a poorly constructed Frankenstein during his debut season with the Toronto Blue Jays. Separately, he experienced calf, hamstring and back troubles that turned out to be related because of a nerve issue in his lower back.
The constant pain was misery.
"I felt like I wasn’t connected," Pearce says at Charlotte Sports Park, his back not only not bothering him any longer, but feeling good and strong. "I felt like my upper body and lower body were two separate parts. When it was going good, they were together but that was few and far between."
So far this spring, Pearce feels much more like a well-built unit.
An epidural in September offered him little relief, but an off-season of "hard" core workouts aimed at alleviating the pressure on his back came to fruition before spring training, providing the type of relief he longed for throughout a 2017 he describes as a "roller-coaster."
A right calf strain slowed him briefly but back-to-back games Thursday and Friday – including a hit, a long fly ball to left that’s a homer in most other parks and five innings in left field during a 6-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays – put him right where he wants to be as the regular season looms.
At times over the winter, he wasn’t sure that would be the case.
"There was no surgery involved so it was kind of like you didn’t know if it was going to be fixed or not," said Pearce. "There were days when I was definitely frustrated … because I was putting in the work and I wasn’t feeling the relief that I wanted to. That was probably most frustrating out of everything.
"When you get the surgery, you know it’s repaired. This injury, it wasn’t like that. I had to really, really work and then one day it just started to click."
The Blue Jays will be looking for Pearce, slated to share time in left field with Curtis Granderson, to get off to a faster start than he did last April, when he opened the season 9-for-54 with three walks and 17 strikeouts. Three homers in two days at Yankee Stadium to open May suggested better times ahead, but less than two weeks later he was on the disabled list with the a left calf strain.
He returned June 16 and enjoyed two strong months, hitting .309/.386/.536 with 12 doubles, nine homers and 20 walks in 53 games through Aug. 24, all while struggling through hamstring pain, before his back pain finally wore him down, coming out of a Sept. 8 game after one at-bat to finish his season.
"Even when I hurt my calf, a week into that rehab I was like, ‘OK, my calf’s fine. Let’s get back working on the hamstring, my hamstring’s killing me,’" said Pearce. "We were doing hamstring stuff all the time until we went and got an MRI and found out it was the back. That whole season I was showing up at the park at one o’clock every day to get treatment and I was rubbing the hottest stuff on my body so I could play. It was really giving me a hard time the whole year."
Still, there were some highlights for Pearce from last year, led by the pair of walk-off grand slams he hit four days apart July 27 against Oakland and July 30 versus the Angels.
"It was really insane. You don’t really think about it until the off-season, when you get home and people are like, ‘Wow, how was that?’" he said. "Everybody was thinking that. That’s what they got out of the season. It was wild. That was my first actual walk-off in the big leagues and then it kind of got the ball rolling. And then the Sunday game it was like, ‘Hey, I’ve been here before.’ I wasn’t as anxious as I probably would have been if the other one didn’t happen."
The 34-year-old, finishing up a $12.5-million, two-year deal, is hoping to give people plenty more positives to talk about at the end of this season.
Here are some other Blue Jays talking points from Friday:
• J.A. Happ was looking to go four innings and roughly 60 pitches in his final Grapefruit League start but a six-pitch third left him at only 49 pitches through four shutout frames. The perils of being too efficient in spring training? "Kind of," he said with a laugh. "If it’s 56, 58 pitches, then you’re right where you want to be. We could have gone back out for another few hitters and get up to 60 but we decided, feels good, let’s just stay there, keep that positive energy and feel and move on to the next one." Happ allowed two hits and a walk, that one of the unintentional intentional variety to pitch around righty Brandon Snyder to get to lefty Joey Wendle to simulate a regular-season situation, against a quality Rays lineup. He’ll stay back in Florida when the Blue Jays go to Montreal to play a pair of exhibition games versus the St. Louis Cardinals and throw a side ahead of his opening day start versus the Yankees next Thursday.
• The Blue Jays’ 15th loss of the spring was a wild one as they erased a 4-0 deficit with five runs in the top of the ninth, capped by first baseman Christian Williams’ three-run shot, only to cough up a pair in the bottom of the ninth when centre-fielder D.J. Davis lost a lazy fly ball by C.J. Cron in the sun, allowing the tying and winning runs to score.
• The reports Thursday morning were all positive on Randal Grichuk, who played seven innings in right field in the second day of a back-to-back after returning from a ribcage injury. "Did he get through it with no problems? Yes. See how he feels going forward," said bench coach DeMarlo Hale. "All seems to be pointing in the right direction. Just kind of continue to monitor and talk to these guys and see where they’re at. Hopefully they tell you the truth. There’s something about opening day. Guys want to be a part of that, and I get it. They build up from the off-season to opening day but I think sometimes I know we as coaches, we just want to be smart enough to say, ‘Are you truly ready?’ I think the back-to-back days indicated he’s pointing in that direction."
• Aaron Sanchez is slated to pitch in a minor-league game on Saturday. Chris Rowley will pitch for the Blue jays against the New York Yankees in Tampa.