Lott: Bautista optimistic about the Jays’ stretch drive as he returns from the DL

Jose Bautista

A year ago at this time, the Blue Jays had just climbed into first place, where they would stay for the rest of the season. The offence was clicking. Jose Bautista had played in 119 games, hit 30 homers and compiled an OPS of .877. 

Entering play Thursday, the Blue Jays led a tight three-way race for the AL East by a half-game. Their offence was averaging seven-tenths of a run less than it did last year. Bautista had played in 80 games, hit 15 homers and posted an OPS of .793.

Injuries had cost him 45 games in two separate stints. In the 15 games between DL visits, he batted .190. Overall he was batting .222.

But an optimistic Bautista was back for Thursday night’s game against the Angels, batting in the leadoff spot as the designated hitter. And on a team laden with veteran stars, the spotlight invariably finds him, as it did in spring training when he famously foreshadowed his upcoming free agency by making unspecific but outspoken comments about his salary demands, and as it has all season as his statistics sagged, and as it did in the second inning Thursday, when he came up with the bases loaded and walloped a sacrifice fly to the warning track in right field.

He also doubled home a run the the ninth inning of the Jays’ 6-3 loss.

Before the game, the spotlight was on him too as a media crowd interrogated him about his health and well-being.

This, so far, has been his worst season of nine as a Blue Jay. It did not begin in exemplary fashion, but until he suffered a sprained big toe in mid-June, his OPS was .815. Since then it is .701. For the past two weeks a knee injury put him on the shelf a second time.

“It’s been tough,” he said. “I’ve had to deal with a lot. But overall, I think I’ve contributed. I’ve always said that you win games by scoring one more run than the other team. My on-base percentage, and RBIs and runs-scored per game are not bad at all.”

Those last two statistics are seldom cited, but Bautista is known for parsing his numbers every which way (and why not, at a time when building a case for a free-agency windfall becomes imperative). His OBP is .349, more than respectable but 26 points below his 2015 mark. Last year he scored an average of .71 runs per game; this year he’s scoring .58. Last year he drove in .75 runs per game; this year’s number is .60.

No, not bad at all. But for the Jays’ chances of winning the division to improve, it would help if they were better.

Bautista hopes to avoid what he called the “anxiety” he felt as he tried to find his groove after jamming his toe in a gap under an outfield wall and missing 30 games.

“When I first got back from the toe injury, I was trying to overdo it a little bit – having a little bit of anxiety and swinging at pitches out of the zone or over-swinging at pitches in the zone,” he said. “Being a little too fine in other situations where I let good pitches pass by and then I see an off-speed (pitch) and stuff like that. I’ve just got to focus better and understand who’s on the mound, and the situation, and hopefully I adjust to that, and just produce. Come through. You’ve got to execute. It’s just a matter of making something good happen for the team.”

In a year when there has been much talk about Bautista the individual – can the Jays afford to retain him, and do they even want to? – his tone Thursday was affable and team-focused.

No, he said, it doesn’t matter where he bats in the lineup. Devon Travis has done a fine job as a leadoff hitter – more on the trials of Travis in a moment – and it makes sense to keep him there, Bautista said. He’ll happily bat wherever manager John Gibbons tells him to, he said.

“I don’t think I’m in a position to be demanding or telling anybody what to do,” he said. “This team is playing great and the last thing I want to be is a disruption. I’ll continue to help in any way that I can and hopefully get back into the playoffs and get that championship that we missed out on last year.”

Gibbons indicated he will use Bautista more often as the DH, especially in the short-term, even though Bautista says he’s ready to return to regular duty in right field. 

Meanwhile, intrigue around Travis continued for a third straight day. He had a cortisone shot in a knuckle on his right hand – what caused the injury is unclear (or undisclosed) – and after suggesting he’d be ready to play Wednesday and Thursday, Gibbons switched his forecast to Friday – “hopefully.”

Then he added, vaguely: “We can’t let it linger too too long.”

Gibbons also said outfielder Michael Saunders’ hamstring “locked up” in Wednesday’s game. No word on how long Saunders will be idle, or if anyone knows at this point.

For a couple of weeks, the Jays were playing with a short bench because they carried an extra pitcher. Now they’re doing it again because of injuries that appear minor, but could turn out to be significant as the team continues to battle for a playoff spot while finding runs hard to come by.

Bautista indicated his own injuries are not entirely healed, with the toe problem persisting, perhaps more as an irritant than an infirmity.

“It’s still a little bit stiff,” he said. “It’s not as sore as it used to be. I think that is something that will linger a little bit longer than the knee, just because of the severity of the injury. But I expect to be back 100 percent for sure next year and hopefully by the time we hit the playoffs. I don’t know how it’s going to respond. I don’t think it’s going to go backwards. I just don’t know how quickly it’ll feel great.” 

Bautista said it’s hard to imagine the Jays pitching any better – they led the AL with a 3.74 ERA before Thursday’s game  – but acknowledged the team needs more offensive consistency. Gibbons figures Bautista’s mere presence in the lineup will help in that regard.

“He’s a feared hitter in this league,” the manager said. “Everybody knows where he is in this lineup, when he’s coming up, when he’s sitting on deck. Everybody’s aware of that. He can burn you with the best of them, and he’ll take his walks. He’s got great discipline, so he might get on base for those other guys.”

Those other guys need to step it up too. In their 22 games before Thursday, they were averaging four runs per game. The league average: 4.51.