Bautista a 1-man show — & no 1-hit wonder

NEW YORK – Somehow, Jose Bautista has become a bit of a traveling one-man show.

That show marched into the Bronx this week, where Bautista and the team he is now the unquestioned face of – the Toronto Blue Jays – arrived at Yankee Stadium for a three-game set. It was there that a mob of New York reporters greeted the slugger that has emerged as one of baseball’s best hitters after about a decade of obscurity, and it was there that a packed Yankee Stadium mercilessly booed him each time he walked to the plate.

That’s what happens when you arrive in the kind of way Bautista has.

The native Dominican burst onto the scene last year in his age-30 season with 54 homers and a fourth-place finish in American League Most Valuable Player voting. This year, the right-fielder – who was signed by the Blue Jays to a heavily-debated five-year, $65 million contract this past offseason — has essentially erased any skepticism about being a one-hit wonder.

Now, everywhere Bautista goes, fans are coming out to see him, reporters are flocking to interview him and opposing managers are wondering how to stop him.

Is he the best hitter going?

“I would argue that,” Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill said. “But I get to see him on a day-to-day basis, so I’m a little biased. … It’s not necessarily the home runs or the hits that he gets, but his whole game; the whole way he approaches baseball, or the hitting side of it. It’s by far the best I’ve seen.”

It’d be pretty easy to make the case that Bautista has been baseball’s best hitter since the start of the 2010 season, as he’s at the top of the leader boards in many statistical categories.

This year, he has taken his game to a whole new level, including bumping up his batting average which was a major deterrent for him in MVP voting last year.

It’d be pretty easy to make the case that Bautista has been baseball’s best hitter since the start of the 2010 season, considering his Major League-leading 1.055 OPS and 73 homers. This year, he has taken his game to a whole new level, leading the Majors with 19 homers and a 1.269 OPS while adding a .342 batting average — a category that was a major deterrent for him in MVP voting last year.

“To me, it tells me it’s for real,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “In our league, you might have a one-month period or a two-month period, but if there’s weaknesses, with all the video people can watch, they’re going to find it. You’re not finding it on Bautista. He’s making people pay at an alarming rate. It’s good at-bats; you don’t see him chase a ton of pitches, and he’s patient. He’s doing what it takes to be a great player.”

To say Bautista’s recent success came out of nowhere may be an understatement.

He was drafted in the 20th round in 2000, played for four organizations in his first big-league season in ’04, then hit just .254 with 15 homers with the Pirates in ’07 — his only year topping 500 plate appearances from 2004-09.

Bautista was always confident that he could thrive in the Majors … but as the league’s premier slugger?

“I never thought about that because, to be honest with you, I never thought I was going to get the chance again to be an everyday player, and even if I did, I didn’t expect to hit 50 home runs. At one point in the game to be the leader in home runs you had to hit not 50, you had to hit 60 and 70,” Bautista said. “I definitely didn’t think about that too much, but it’s something that’s obviously very gratifying.”

The treatment of Bautista with men on base seems similar to that of Pujols, or perhaps of home run king Barry Bonds in his heyday. The Blue Jays’ right fielder paces baseball in free passes with 43 and has already tripled his intentional-walk total from last year.

It’s a tribute to his patience, but perhaps also to the lack of protection around him.

Adam Lind is the Blue Jays’ de facto cleanup hitter, but he has been out since May 7 due to lower back tightness. So, against Bartolo Colon in the series opener on May 23, manager John Farrell had shortstop Yunel Escobar hitting behind Bautista in the No. 4 spot — making him his fourth cleanup hitter since Lind went on the DL.

In his first at-bat against the Yankees that Monday, Bautista deposited a Colon fastball over the left-center field wall to put him one homer away from 20. Then, in the sixth, he was intentionally walked with none out and a man on second in a 1-1 game.

“They’re taking the bat out of his hand,” Farrell said before the game. “Just from a sheer strategy standpoint, they’re not putting him in a position where he could affect the outcome of the game, particularly late in the game.”

Bautista’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider his lack of chances. But perhaps most impressive is that his emergence as a star hitter has began in the “Year of the Pitcher.”

After a torrid start, Bautista is on pace to finish with 66 homers and become the first player to even reach 60 since ’01.

“I don’t think even think about that,” he scoffed. “I could care less.”

What Bautista does care about is helping the usually under-the-radar Blue Jays win – something he’ll do with defense, demeanor and discipline.

Last year, Bautista opened eyes. So far this year, he has shown the second-guessers he’s here to stay.

“I expected myself to perform well, just because now I know I did it once, and knowing that if I kept my focus on the approach and what led me to the success, that I was going to be able to repeat it,” Bautista said. “It is somewhat gratifying knowing that a lot of people are skeptical about what happened last year, and I guess I’m proving them wrong.”

— Alden 

** What I wrote this week: Some thoughts on the Buster Posey-Scott Cousins collision; the Marlins are thriving, and hardly anyone has noticed; Rafael Soriano could miss up to two more months

1 Comment

We need to set a standard, not follow the ways of the world.

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