ARLINGTON, Texas — Hitting fifth in the Blue Jays order has given Russell Martin an awfully good view of Jose Bautista’s at-bats over the last few weeks. That means the Blue Jays catcher watched Bautista’s OPS of .974 over his final 20 games of the season; watched him hit a second-inning home run a few nights ago to put his team ahead in the wild-card game; watched him step to the plate at Globe Life Park Thursday afternoon to an absolute hurricane of boos from 47,434 Texans who hate him more than they hate gun control; and watched him hit a three-run shot in the top of the ninth to intensify that hatred even further and eliminate any faint hope of a Rangers comeback in Game 1 of this series.
So, Russ, what’s that like?
“I’ve been watching him square balls up pretty often lately,” Martin said after the Blue Jays’ 10-1 win. “So, I obviously felt good for him to hit a home run in front of a crowd that loves to hate him. We were actually talking about it. Like, what’s the best kind of revenge? Well, revenge is the best kind of revenge. And I think he got his revenge right there.”
Revenge is a strong but fair word for what Bautista did Thursday afternoon, lining a 425-foot, 104-mph middle finger into the left-field seats off Rangers reliever Jake Diekman in his first game vs. the Rangers since the punch you all remember. But as he has for the last two days since this ALDS matchup was booked, Bautista didn’t entertain any retribution or vengeance narratives after the game, opting instead to focus on the boxscore.
“I’m not trying to make it about myself. Helping my team win feels good. I guess that’s about as far as I can take that comment,” Bautista said with a grin. “I wanted to avoid all the questions about the whole ordeal because we’re baseball players, not UFC fighters. We came here to play ball games. That’s why I wanted everybody to kind of focus on that in our clubhouse. And we did and we played a pretty good game today and hopefully we continue to do that.”
But even though Bautista didn’t bite at the lures the press is eager to cast his way, his teammates were more than happy to.
“We knew Bats was going to get booed. We were excited for it,” Troy Tulowitzki said. “And we had fun with it.”
“That’s a big-time player in a big-time spot,” added Kevin Pillar. “He’s just doing what he does.”
“I know that made him happy,” Josh Donaldson said, grinning. “And I was happy for him to be able to do that as well.”
But more important than any kind of payback in the form of the home run, or the beatdown the Blue Jays laid on the Rangers Thursday, is the fact Bautista seems to be back to his old ways at the plate after a frustrating season marked by a surprising lack of power and two trips to the disabled list that limited him to only 116 games.
While Bautista put up just an .817 OPS on the year, his lowest mark since 2009, the outfielder finished the season strong, and is off to a nice start to this post-season with three hits and two walks in his first nine plate appearances, and of course the pair of home runs.
Bautista is now a .313/.431/.750 batter lifetime in the post-season with six home runs. His 1.181 playoff OPS is the third-highest in the history of baseball for any batter with 50 or more plate appearances. And the two guys he’s trailing—Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig—are pretty decent themselves.
“It feels good to contribute, no matter what game it is, especially in the playoffs,” Bautista said, adding that he’s not fully over the injuries that limited him this season but healthy enough to play. “I’m looking forward to the off-season and recovering. But hopefully we get to extend this playoff run as far as we can. And if I have to continue to play like this and deal with even more stuff that might show up on the way, I’ll deal with it.”
Donaldson also appears to be coming around after a difficult and painful end to his season which featured a brief three-game sabbatical to get over a nagging hip injury and only three home runs from the beginning of September through the end of the season.
The reigning MVP actually appeared to be coming around late in the season as he drove the ball with authority during the Blue Jays’ season-ending series in Boston. Nine of his final 11 batted balls in the regular season came off his bat at 90-mph or harder, but more than half of them went for outs as Donaldson suffered through some extraordinarily bad luck.
But Thursday afternoon, Donaldson reached base in all five of his plate appearances, including a pair of hits that left his bat at just 82 and 84 mph, in a sign that his luck may be beginning to change.
“I certainly hope so,” Donaldson said. “It’s always nice when they fall. But all you can do as a hitter is try to put together a good at-bat and hit the ball hard. But you saw today, sometimes when you hit the ball soft that works out too.
“The game of baseball doesn’t owe you anything. You just go out there and you play as hard as you can, and try to play smart and aggressive at the same time. And I felt like we were able to do that today.”
Bautista and Donaldson getting hot at precisely the right time would be a boon for the Blue Jays, who now find themselves two wins away from a repeat appearance in the ALCS. While the team’s offence slumped for the entire month of September, the Blue Jays have now put up 15 runs in their first two post-season games, an encouraging sign for a team that has received sound starting pitching all year.
While Donaldson and Bautista remain two of the most feared hitters in baseball and are pitched accordingly—they finished second and third in the American League with walk rates above 15 per cent—it would certainly be a welcome sign for them both to start getting on base with hits, as well. Martin’s been watching their plate appearances closely, and he thinks there’s more performances like he saw Thursday to come.
“They’re gamers. They’re warriors out there. And they’re tough. They’ve got quick hands, quick eyes at the plate. They’re tough outs,” Martin said. “So, when you see them lurk in counts, and even when pitchers get two strikes on them they’re still tough, it’s a good sign. They just make the opposing pitcher work and they wear him down. And if the guy makes a mistake, they’re going to make him pay for it.”