NEW YORK-The Jays shipped out underachieving left fielder Travis Snider in Texas, then invaded the Big Apple offering a re-configured lineup vs. the Yankees, Friday night in the Bronx. The Jays' freshly shuffled deck included pure rookie David Cooper at designated hitter, Edwin Encarnacion back at third, Rajai Davis batting leadoff and Juan Rivera in left field. Despite all that, the only thing that truly matters with the Jays' offensive fortunes is the powerful bat in the hands of Jose Bautista.
“Thankfully he's in our uniform,” Jays' manager John Farrell said. “Whether it's an aggressive play on the basepaths, whether it's getting the right pitch in certain situations where he drives it out of the ballpark. He's a very complete player and it shows up every night.”
The Jays rode a gritty six-inning performance by starter Ricky Romero (2-3) and homers by Bautista, his ninth, and catcher J.P. Arencibia, his fourth, to a 5-3 victory against Freddy Garcia to even the club's record at 13-13. Jon Rauch picked up a four-out save, his fifth. Now, with five games left on this tough 10-game road trip to Texas, New York and Tampa they are 4-1.
“The way we take the field every day we look at this as another day here,” Farrell said. “Another day of preparation and a great competitive night. This team loves to play. They like the style of game that we're playing and they're into it. It's a great attitude and a competitive bunch.”
When the Jays' clubhouse opened to reporters mid-afternoon, a stream of New York media headed to Bautista's locker to hear what he had to say and report back to their constituencies. Yankee fans are used to the game's biggest stars in town, but usually in pinstripes. Bautista, the Jays' $65 million (U.S.) man is no longer a States secret. He lives up to his advance billing.
“Any time you come in here, they always have a packed house and a lot of fans,” Bautista said. “The visiting team, they heckle us pretty good, so anytime you're getting picked on by the fans and you manage to win a game, it's always satisfying.”
It was another Bautista night to shine. In the first inning, the Jays' right fielder ripped a vicious linedrive single to left field with Yunel Escobar on base. It was just the beginning. In the third, trailing by a run, Bautista crushed a Garcia fastball with Escobar on base again that was gone from the yard as soon as it left the bat. The laser crashed into a railing in the second deck and bounced high into the air.
In the fourth inning it became an easy decision for the Yankees in deciding how to deal with Bautista. With Davis stealing second and one out, Garcia threw down and in, down and away, down and away, then an intentional ball four. Easy. They weren't going to let Bautista beat them.
In the sixth, a similar situation repeated itself with Bautista, this time with David Robertson on the mound. Once again they walked him. This time, Bautista helped his team with his legs. With Davis on third, Robertson faked to third and turned to first with Bautista on the move. The righthander spun to check Davis at third, spun back to Bautista in the baseline, then panicky, sailed a throw into centre allowing the Jays' fourth run.
“I just thought it was a good situation to be on the move,” Bautista said. “I was going first move and he just happened to have a pickoff play. I was caught with my pants down, basically. It was a play that I decided to go before the pitcher came set.”
Rivera then singled to left and Bautista challenged Brett Gardner's arm, stylishly sliding past Russell Martin in foul territory and slapping the plate ahead of the tag by the catcher who had the ball in his bare hand and tagged Jose with his glove.
Okay, so the Bautista contributions seem predictable on a nightly basis, but how about the changes in the lineup? How'd that work out? Other than Cooper, the Jays still have to play defence. Which is unfortunate when it comes to Encarnacion, who as you may recall left the Jays as a third baseman and was re-signed as a DH. Circumstances change but his frustrating inconsistency remains.
In the fifth inning with runners on first and second, nobody out, Nick Swisher hit a line drive to that hit the third baseman in the palm of the glove and dropped to the ground, both runners retreating to their bases. With the play in front of him, Edwin had five options and only one was bad. He chose the bad one, firing a throw past John McDonald into right field to load the bases. But with the Jays clinging to a one-run lead, Escobar saved Romero and Encarnacion, first by making a running catch over his head in short left field and then starting a tough inning-ending double play from the hole.
“Escobar, I think is one of the most underrated shortstops in this league,” Romero said. “The balls he gets to and the plays he makes sometimes are amazing. He wnet out there and got that ball and once he got it I thought I'm getting out of this inning. Tremendous, tremendous defence tonight.”
How tremendous has Bautista's recent offensive run been? Consider that in his last 10 games, Jose has 14 hits, 16 walks and a hit-by-pitch. His batting average is .483, his slugging mark is 1.276, his on-base average is .674 and his OPS a stunning 1.950. He has already set a club record for bases-on-balls in the month of April with 28. Carlos Delgado drew 26 walks in April, 2001.
“I feel pretty good,” Bautista understated. “I'm seeing the ball well and I'm getting myself in really good hitting counts. With my load and getting ready early, I can see the ball real well. I'm getting some good pitches to hit and I'm taking advantage.”
Bautista has clearly been the league's best player and if not him, it's surely been Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano who homered twice and drew a pair of walks in Friday's loss.
“You look at Bautista and he's about as disciplined as anyone in this league and when he gets that pitch, he doesn't miss it,” Romero said admiringly. “And Cano, he's hot. It's tough to pitch around him and make pitches because he's battling and you know he did a great job tonight.”
The two teams play Saturday afternoon with rookie Kyle Drabek facing A.J. Burnett.