Edwin Encarnacion celebrates his walkoff homer against the Brewers in July 2014. Photo by John Lott
BOSTON – As the crestfallen crowd fled the stadium on Thursday night, and his teammates gathered their gear and filed into the clubhouse tunnel, Edwin Encarnacion stayed behind. He sat in the dugout for a few extra seconds, gazing at the empty diamond. Then, turning toward the exit, he lifted his right index finger to his temple and flicked a soft salute toward the barren field.
He is hoping that will not be his last good-bye to the Rogers Centre. But he knows it might be. He wanted to pay his respects in a private moment, even though it became public, and even though his fans might not get the chance to reciprocate.
“It’s tough because I have six years here in the organization,” he said, perhaps deliberately forgetting that he has eight. The first two were troubled.
“Sometimes you get emotional. You don’t know what’s going to happen after this year and you start thinking about that. That’s why I want to go back and play one more time.”
If that is to happen, his fading Blue Jays must make hay in Fenway this weekend. They are fighting for a wild-card berth, along with three other teams, and the potential permutations seem infinite. Their fondest hope is to take the top spot and host the sudden-death game at the Rogers Centre on Tuesday night.
“I was just thinking about wanting to bring the game back to the playoffs here (meaning the Rogers Centre) because that would be the best moment to be playing that game for this team,” Encarnacion said Friday afternoon in Fenway’s cramped visitors’ clubhouse. “I know I’m going to be a free agent after this year … I want to bring the playoffs back. That’s what I was thinking about.”
He would like to come back. But at 33, one of the game’s elite sluggers will test the market. He would prefer the Jays to meet his terms. Many doubt they will. Next year, for the first time since 2007, both Encarnacion and Jose Bautista could be playing elsewhere.
For the past two seasons, Encarnacion has been a bargain at $10-million. He will draw at least twice that on the open market.
“You feel sad because I want to be here, but it’s not my decision,” he said, meaning he will follow the money. “Now we have to wait and see what’s going to happen.”
When spring training began, he said he would not negotiate if he could not work out an extension with the Jays before opening day. Now, he says, he is not thinking about a new deal and the windfall it will bring.
“I’m just thinking about making the playoffs and going to the World Series,” he said.
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Encarnacion is a soft-spoken slugger, at least in English, and often boisterous when speaking Spanish. And not without wit in either language.
“He hanged it, I banged it,” he said in 2014 after hitting a walkoff three-run homer against Milwaukee.
Back in spring training this year, during a media session about his potential contract demands as a free agent, a reporter pointedly asked: “What’s your number?”
He responded with a wry smile, then said: “My number? I want to hit 40 homers.”
He has done that, with two to spare, giving him 239 as a Blue Jay. Many have been memorable. Five have been walkoffs. Twice he has hit three in one game. When he hits one out, he raises his right elbow as he circles the bases in a ritual now known as Parading the Parrot after someone made a GIF that added a multi-coloured bird to his home-run trot.
Meanwhile, when not serving as the designated hitter, he has played first base in longer stretches than in past years. He believes he has never played it better. He’s right.
“He’s more mentally prepared now that he’s playing more often,” said infield coach Luis Rivera. “You can see he’s a guy that can play every day at first base.”
Which certainly could be a boon when he hits free agency.
“He’s done a tremendous job at first base,” said manager John Gibbons. “So there’s no way he’s eliminated from National League teams. They’ve been watching. I wouldn’t think his defence would even be a question any more.”
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It is easy to forget now that Edwin Encarnacion, then a scatter-armed third baseman, was booed out of Cincinnati before he was traded to Toronto in 2009. Or that a year later, as he struggled at the plate and third base, the Jays sent him to the minors after designating him for assignment. Or that they placed him on waivers after the 2010 season, allowing Oakland to claim him, then took him back when Oakland declined to tender him a new contract.
Moved off third in 2011, he began to thrive. Over his past six seasons, he has averaged 35 homers and posted an OPS of .895.
“There have been a lot of ups and down in the last six years in my career here with Toronto,” he said, again dismissing those first two seasons. “But it’s more good things that happened to me than bad things happened. So I feel good, the way I’ve been for this organization, and I feel very proud.”
If he goes, he obviously will be missed, on the field and in the clubhouse, by Jays fans and by his manager.
“There’s special guys you get to coach along the way,” Gibbons said. “He’s one of them, not just because of how good he is but because of the kind of individual he is.
“A lot of times you take it for granted. Now I see that I might not be on the same team with him next year. If that’s the case, I can look back with fond memories and say I got to manage Eddie for a few years. And that’s pretty cool, because he’s one of the most likeable guys you’re ever going to be around. He’s a really good down-to-earth individual.”
Gibbons acknowledged that he might also be gone next year. From holding the division high ground in early September, the Jays are life-and-death to make the playoffs.
But during the their offensive misery in September, not including Friday’s action, Encarnacion has batted .272, compiled an .859 OPS and driven in 22 per cent of the team’s runs. He is walking the walk, and talking the talk for himself and his teammates.
At the same time, knowing his days as a Blue Jay have dwindled to a precious few, he desperately wants to go out a winner and to do it at home, with fans rocking the Rogers Centre.
During the final home series against the Orioles, he began to feel it slipping away.
“It was the last series more when I start thinking because of the position where we are,” he said. “Everybody knows where we are, and we need to win. We’ve got to start winning, today, the last three days of the season, and win top place right now. But we know we can do it.”
They’ve been saying that for weeks. If the talk turns out to be hollow, it will not have been the fault of Edwin Encarnacion.
“I can see that he could be somewhere else, even though he loves it in Toronto,” Gibbons said. “There’s a lot of memories for him here and a lot of great years. You kind of feel for the guy.”