DUNEDIN, Fla. – A third game in four days after his first back-to-back contests of the spring went off without a hitch for Devon Travis, another step forward in a camp full of progress for the dynamic Toronto Blue Jays second baseman.
"I hadn’t really thought about that," Travis says of the ongoing buildup. "The back-to-back was nice. It’s just sweet. I’m excited. I feel good. I’m not even thinking about my progression any more at this point."
That the minor but important milestone passed in Friday’s 6-5 Blue Jays loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte without much notice from the 27-year-old is the latest indication of how confident he’s becoming in his twice-injured right knee.
Exactly how much he plays during the regular season is uncertain – the Blue Jays have spent a lot of time talking about managing his workload in an attempt to help him go wire-to-wire for the first time – but his impact when playing is clear.
Through 213 games over three injury truncated seasons, Travis’ production has been worth 5.5 WAR per Fangraphs. He managed 101 games in 2016 but just 50 last year, although he carried the Blue Jays during May, their only winning month of the season.
As starter J.A. Happ puts it: "He can really be a catalyst for us because of his potential to be such a good hitter, such a good on-base guy. We miss him, certainly, when he’s not in there."
And certainly Travis has dearly missed playing during all his down time, first caused by shoulder troubles in 2015 that required a pair of surgeries with the recovery bleeding into the next spring, and then by the knee troubles that cut short the end of his ‘16 campaign and ruined things for him in ’17.
This spring has been as normal a camp as he’s enjoyed since he reported to Dunedin three years ago as an effervescent prospect acquired in the off-season from the Detroit Tigers for Anthony Gose. Travis forced his way onto the team by just hitting and hitting and hitting, debuting at Yankee Stadium on April 6 with a homer and two walks in a 6-1 Blue Jays win.
All the adversity he’s faced since then, certainly enough to drain the positivity and joy from some people, has only given him more perspective.
"I’ve learned how much this game means to me and having it taken away so often, the biggest thing I’m different with is appreciating every day. Having fun," he says after contemplating how he’s changed since that debut. "There are tough days, man, when you come in and you might be going through a rut, and you’re like, ‘Man, I’ve got go out here and play today?’ Those are the days to embrace, because you’re going to come out of it and the more fun you have with this game and take through those tough times, the more you enjoy the results when things do turn around.
"This game is everything I dreamed of when I was a kid and I want to continue to love it more and more every day."
To get himself well enough to play the game he so loves, Travis also had to learn how to embrace rehab. The natural tendency for anyone recovering from an injury is to chase the finish line, and think about how to get themselves back to full health as quickly as possible.
Through experience, Travis learned that’s a counter-productive place to be mentally, leading to bad trains of thought whenever the body hits the inevitable hiccups along the way. In rehab, he found it was best to work for small victories rather than the final goal, settling into the ups and downs of the daily grind.
"Injuries test your mind in ways that aren’t explicable. The thoughts that go through your head in those tough times, when I look back they’re scary," says Travis. "You get out what you put in and those tough times, the biggest thing you build is your mental strength."
As scary as the thoughts got, Travis never lost faith that he’d return to the baseball field.
Eventually, as the small victories led to increasingly bigger gains, actual baseball, which had by necessity become a secondary thought amid the rehab, returned to the forefront. And rather than simply taking the field expecting that his swing and approach would return and that the hits would follow, Travis thought back to his trying April from a year ago, when he rushed through spring while recovering from his first knee operation and hit .130/.193/.195 through his first 21 games.
"That was a real shocker," he says. "That was my eye-opener to say, however much work you used to put in to get ready, when you get hurt you need to put in double or triple or quadruple of whatever it is, because it’s hard to make up for that missed time."
To enjoy success at the plate, hitters need a strong mix of feel, timing, the ability to track pitches and to think through an at-bat, on top of the physical capacity to find success.
Asked which element was toughest to regain, Travis doesn’t hesitate before replying, "Everything."
"It comes back, don’t get me wrong, not just for me, for everybody. In time, we’ve all done this for so long that it truly is second nature to us, but when it’s taken away, getting it back just takes longer," he continues. "You have to trust. You can’t come back scared. You can’t come back worried about the injury. You can’t allow that to be in the forefront of your mind. Early on when you do start playing, it is the biggest thing on your mind. That’s the first hurdle you clear, to not be afraid of what you were battling before, and after that the feel is the next toughest thing to get. You’re almost asking people, ‘Hey, do I look normal? Am I swinging how I used to swing? Is my stance how I used to stand? How do you grab the bat?’ You start asking questions you haven’t asked in a very long time."
This spring, Travis isn’t asking questions any longer, he’s giving the Blue Jays answers. Just in case, they protected the roster over the winter with better middle infield options in Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz, the latter of whom opens the season as the starting shortstop in Troy Tulowitzki’s absence.
Travis, on the other hand, will wisely skip the exhibition games in Montreal on Olympic Stadium’s dodgy artificial turf but be ready for opening day, eager to resume a stalled career so full of promise.
"It’s just good to see him smiling," says Happ. "He’s happy again, he’s playing, he’s healthy, he’s out there doing what he loves to do. We expect big things and are happy we made it through here with him healthy."