DUNEDIN, Fla. – The first fastballs of spring can be a cruel experience for batters and Sean Reid-Foley came out firing in his first live batting practice of camp, throwing a dart that Bo Bichette swung through, drawing guffaws and grins from teammates nearby.
“What did that look like, 105, 110?” quipped Randal Grichuk, part of the same hitting group on Field 5 at the Bobby Mattick Training Center that also included Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Albert Mineo.
This is, of course, the time of year when 85 m.p.h. cookies can look like serious heat, let alone stuff that’s actually in the mid-90s range that Reid-Foley was probably pushing Wednesday.
The weeks, sometimes months of off-season batting practice and early work in camp, quickly give way to the realities of trying to square up a pitcher with cut, sink, spin and change of pace, and the frustration and failure inherent to that.
Between rounds Wednesday, Kevin Pillar joked that after the first day of live batting practice hitters go home and feel sad. Then each day as their eyes, brains and bodies adjust, they feel a bit less sad. Eventually, once the first hit of the spring falls, a feeling of comfort begins to return again.
“That’s a good explanation, I definitely agree with him,” Grichuk said laughing. “Live BP is tough for pitchers and hitters. We don’t want to get hit, we don’t want to look stupid. They don’t want to hit us, so you go in there to get your timing and to feel good. But it’s tough to do.”
Grichuk certainly didn’t look stupid, using his first swing of the spring to send a drive well beyond the right-centre field wall, although he also waved over a filthy slider a few of pitches later.
“It definitely looked like 105 standing off to the side,” he said of Reid-Foley’s fastball. “Get the jitters out those first couple of pitches and take a hack if you see a good pitch. Luckily I connected and squared it up.”
The perils of live batting practice could be heard a few metres away at Field 4, where Rule 5 pick Elvis Luciano lost control of a fastball that hit Teoscar Hernandez on the left triceps. He shook it off, and later in the session, took the 19-year-old deep.
“I think only one guy got hit and he’s fine,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “That usually happens. … They could be throwing 83 or 90 and it looks like 100. That’s why we pulled the cages back, so it doesn’t look like 120, just 100.”
Praise for swings or pitches this spring are often fool’s gold, but it’s noteworthy how much notice Grichuk has been getting for where he’s at given how he started last year.
The right-fielder’s first spring with the Blue Jays was a bit of a mess as he struggled to get ready for opening day. A .106/.208/.227 April he described as “a disaster” followed, he ended up on the disabled list with a knee injury, reworked his swing in the process and recovered to hit .271/.319/.553 in his final 99 games to rescue his campaign.
At camp now, he’s carrying himself with an ease that was absent last year, smiling and joking with his teammates constantly, his place on the club more set.
“It definitely feels different, just because I’ve been with the guys now for a year, I feel more comfortable coming in here, knowing some of the guys on a personal level rather than just hey, how’s it going,” Grichuk explained. “I finished strong last year, I’m trying to ride that confidence into this year and see how far it will take me.”
A big part of that was his off-season work aimed at “maintaining” his move from a more crouched stance to one that’s more upright, which prevented him from getting under the ball in his swing the way he did last April.
The goal was to minimize the interruption in the rhythm he managed to create by “focusing on what I did right and what I did wrong, trying to recreate what I did right and what felt right every day.”
“I got to a point in September where I got more confident and comfortable in my set-ups and felt like I was getting more consistent with it,” he continued. “But then you go home and take off a month or two of hitting and it’s not easy. Last year when I started standing up, it felt like I was on my tippy-toes. You really don’t understand until you try to make a huge change. But I felt pretty good with the work I put in, I’m excited to see where I start off this year and how my first month is – hopefully better than last year – and we can go from there.”