It had come to this in The Saga of Joey Bats: On a chilly April Friday in Kansas City, the visiting Toronto Blue Jays had somehow scratched their way back into a 2-2 tie with the Royals. In the top of the eighth, things got interesting.
There were runners on second and third. No outs. Royals reliever Greg Holland, a flame-throwing righty, was starting to labor against the Jays’ No. 2 hitter, left-handed Kelly Johnson.
Jose Bautista, Toronto’s right-handed slugger, was on deck. Kansas City manager Ned Yost had a decision to make. Put the pressure on Johnson, a second baseman who’d come into the night with a .214 career average against the Royals? Or Bautista, an All-Star outfielder who was toting a .274 career mark against Kansas City? Johnson, who’s hit 50 home runs since 2010? Or Bautista, who’s mashed 99?
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Yost didn’t hesitate. He elected to intentionally walk Johnson, loading the bases.
He wanted Joey Bats.
Sometimes, baseball is a game of feel. Instinct. In Yost’s defense, Bautista came into the top of the eighth hitting at a .205 clip. Through the first seven innings, the burly right fielder was just four for his last 21. Joey Bats had gone flat.
It’s early, sure. But when last April you hit .366 with nine home runs and this one, you’re hitting .214 with two dingers, it starts to feel a little less early all the time.
“I mean, it’s nothing to laugh about,” Bautista said early Friday afternoon, before the Jays opened a seven-game road trip at Kauffman Stadium.
“I just think, sometimes, people get anxious and they want to see results. Sometimes, they’re not as patient. Bottom line, it’s a long season. You’ve just got to take it one day at a time and realize there are long streaks, good streaks and bad streaks. And it can happen anytime during the season: At the beginning, the middle, or end. It’s impossible to be the same every single year.”
And yet, over the previous two years — ever since he tweaked his swing and adapted to hitting coach Dwayne Murphy’s “Grip It And Rip It” philosophy — Bautista had been remarkably consistent. In April and May 2010: 16 home runs. In April and May 2011: 20. Pre All-Star break 2010: 24 homers. Pre All-Star break 2011: 34.
“We talked about, from a team standpoint, that 35-40-game mark — you’re going to get a read on what a hitter does once he gets close to that 100-at-bat plateau,” Jays manager John Farrell explained. “But Jose, while he’s gotten off to an uncharacteristically slow start, there have been signs there and stretches where the bat speed is there, the timing has clicked, and he’s really squared some balls up.
“And while the numbers (aren’t there) as far as batting average, and maybe the fact that he’s got two home runs from 12 games, that’s just a start.”
Bautista insists that he hasn’t changed his stance. Or his routine. Or his mantra. Joey Bats still does the little things, the stuff that won’t rock your fantasy world. He’s reached base in seven straight games and went into Friday’s action tied for first in the American League with 11 bases on balls.
But timely walks usually don’t make a dent in the nightly highlight packages. Long balls do.
“I think it’s a perception thing,” Bautista said. “Sometimes it just seems that way, so people try to make a bigger deal than it really is.”
Ask Joey Bats about the purgatory of slumps, he’ll roll his eyes. This is a man who once got passed through five organizations in one season. He’s been dumped more times than Dobie Gillis. And you expect him to panic over two weeks in April?
“The best example was last year with (Albert) Pujols,” Toronto outfielder Eric Thames chuckled. “I mean, he was hitting like .200 for like the first two or three months and everyone was like, ‘He’s old, he’s tired, he can’t hit anymore.’ And then he just went off — and hit .290, .300 like he always does.
“And that’s the funny thing about the fans and the writers: Everybody wants results now, every single game. They want you to get three or four hits, two home runs per game. It’s baseball. It’s a long season. There’s ups and there’s downs, but nobody doubts what he can do. He’s fine. He’s our leader. He’s one of the best hitters in the game. Yeah, we all have cold streaks. I’m going through a cold streak right now. I mean, it’s OK. There’s always the next game. And you never know when you’re going to bust out.”
You never do. Which brings us back to Friday night, Joey Bats digging in, the evening in his hands.
Holland missed with a slider, then again with a four-seam fastball. On a 2-0 count, Bautista reared back and took a giant whack at a 95-mile-per-hour four-seamer. He fouled it back.
On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, Holland went with a fastball again, this one at 96. Bautista whipped the offering into short right field for a single, a rocket that wound up plating the decisive run.
“Maybe they were just going off how he’s been hitting the last few games or something like that,” Thames said after the Jays escaped with a 4-3 victory.
“But we were all kind of like, ‘Wow. They must have REALLY wanted that right-on-right matchup.'”