Joey’s Back! Bautista excited for Toronto return with Mets
NEW YORK (AP) While other players were prepping for this season at spring training, Jose Bautista was on his own.
A six-time All-Star without a big league job, Bautista remained eager to catch on somewhere and knew he needed to be resourceful. So to stay in game shape, the 37-year-old slugger spent his days back home in Florida hopping from gym workouts to local ballfields.
Sometimes he ended up at the University of Tampa, or Tampa Catholic High School. Wherever he could find an empty diamond to hit and do defensive drills.
”I was trying to mimic somewhat the same program,” said Bautista, who has quickly become a rare bright spot for the New York Mets this year. ”I mean, it wasn’t the easiest thing.”
His agent helped him scrounge up batting-practice pitchers to simulate game situations as best they could. High school kids, college players, other free agents looking for work.
Bautista figures he got about 30 ”at-bats” or so in April, when the regular season was already underway for everyone else. All the while, the former Toronto Blue Jays star waited for a new opportunity.
”Yeah, different fields. Whatever was available and whatever people could get to,” he said.
Not exactly an ideal way to sharpen up for Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw. But after struggling through a 12-game stint with the Atlanta Braves in May, mostly at third base, Joey Bats has hardly missed a beat since arriving in New York. He had a .944 OPS over 35 games going into Sunday and had already batted in every spot for the Mets besides ninth.
”He never backed off,” teammate and close friend Jose Reyes said last week. ”He always was working.”
Next up, a nice reward.
On deck this week is the first trip for Bautista back to Toronto, where he blossomed into one of baseball’s best power hitters with the Blue Jays from 2008-17. The struggling Mets play interleague games at Rogers Centre on Tuesday and Wednesday night. Needless to say, he’s excited.
”I’m trying not to think about it,” Bautista said last week. ”I’m trying not to dwell on it too much.”
”Obviously, I played there for 10 years. I consider it one of my homes away from home,” he added. ”I’m just going to let it come and enjoy it when it gets here.”
Reyes, also Bautista’s teammate in Toronto from 2013-15, said last week the outfielder had been staying at his house in New York for the past few days and the two talked about the upcoming games in Toronto.
Reyes figures the Blue Jays might have a video tribute planned, but he’s sure Bautista will receive a standing ovation after helping the team end a 22-year playoff drought and reach consecutive AL Championship Series in 2015 and 2016.
Bautista, still sporting a neatly trimmed beard, acknowledged he anticipates a warm reception.
”I don’t expect anything else from Canadian fans. They’re top-notch, a class act,” he said. ”We had a pretty good run there and I had a successful career in my years there. … I did enjoy my time in Toronto greatly and it’s going to be great to be back.”
Bautista hit 54 home runs for the Blue Jays in 2010 and led the majors again with 43 the following season. He finished in the top four in AL MVP voting both years.
And of course, who could ever forget his gigantic bat flip after connecting for a decisive homer in the 2015 playoffs against Texas?
As he approached free agency, Bautista’s numbers dropped off in 2016. Toronto brought him back on a one-year contract for $18 million last season, but he slumped to a .203 batting average with 23 homers, 65 RBIs and 170 strikeouts, and the Blue Jays moved on.
”As a player, we understand that this is a business,” Reyes said. ”He wanted to stay there, but I don’t know. When you build that fan base and the people love you and stuff and you (are) successful in one place, you don’t want to go someplace else. But it comes a time in baseball. It just happens. Yeah, he understands that.”
Two days after he was released by Atlanta, the Mets signed Bautista on May 22 for the $545,000 major league minimum to provide a right-handed bat in the outfield following injuries to Yoenis Cespedes and Juan Lagares.
Bautista stepped off a plane and right into the starting lineup, hitting a double in his first at-bat, just as he did with the Braves. This time, though, he hasn’t stopped producing even though everything around him keeps falling apart.
With the help of 24 walks in 105 plate appearances, Bautista began Sunday with a .438 on-base percentage for the last-place Mets. He’d reached base safely in 15 straight games and even played some solid defense.
”It’s definitely impressive and we are in awe of him,” 25-year-old outfielder Brandon Nimmo said. ”He’s a great veteran presence. He’s got a lot of wisdom, knowledge and understanding of the game. … I think just that preparation, that work ethic and that eagle eye he’s got, it’s been a great combination.”
Now playing every day in a familiar corner outfield spot after right fielder Jay Bruce went on the disabled list, too, Bautista began Sunday hitting .266 for the Mets with three homers, 10 doubles and 13 RBIs.
”A dangerous wild card,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said before a game against New York last week. ”A man that wanted to play, felt he could play and was going to do what it took necessary to put himself in a position to play. He stayed active, he stayed ready, his agent reached out to every club. I mean, we got a call. That hey, if there’s a fit and he has interest, he’s willing to go play and earn and whatever it might be. How can you not appreciate that?
”Opportunity here, he’s landed and taken that opportunity and run with it. We watch the video – yeah, the bat’s still dangerous. The barrel still plays. The skill set is still very competitive. Very competitive.”
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