CLEARWATER, Florida – Jose Bautista isn't getting worked up about his red hot spring training. After all, established players don't concern themselves with Grapefruit League statistics.
"I'm just trying to make sure I keep working on my game plan and my mental preparation for each at-bat and the situation that I have in front of me," said Bautista, before offering a glimpse into the extent of his own expectations. "It's been a little bit inconsistent but that's to be expected in spring training."
After Thursday's 3-1 win over the Phillies, which marked the first time this season Bautista had played into the eighth inning, he's hitting .304/.465/.717 (1.182 OPS) with five home runs and 11 RBI.
He's looking to regain the form from 2010 and 2011 that catapulted him to superstardom. He led baseball with 54 and 43 home runs, respectively, in those two seasons and in 2011 led baseball with an otherworldly 1.056 OPS. Those are lofty standards and Bautista has battled injuries (wrist, hip) since then but he feels he still can be a consistent threat.
"Overall, I feel pretty good about camp and I'm seeing the ball well and I think I'm staying within the strike zone," said Bautista. "Any time I'm doing that I normally do well."
Bautista has had a strong start in the field, too. Showing no ill effects from a jammed hip that cost him the final six weeks of last season, he made a great sliding catch on a Jimmy Rollins' shallow fly ball in the first inning of Thursday's game; then in the third was credited with his fourth outfield assist of the season on a play at second base.
There is legitimate concern about the state of the starting pitching heading into the regular season but Bautista believes improved defence will help the rotation.
"I'm healthy. So is Colby. So is Melky and the little bit of games he played (last year) he was hurt the whole time. Same with Brett; he started the season on the DL. Jose (got hurt) in the third week of the season and we missed him a lot," said Bautista. "We had two new guys getting used to the turf in Maicer (Izturis) and Bonifacio who struggled a little bit at second. Now, Maicer is more used to it; Goins is really good defensively and the rest of the infield is healthy and ready to go. We have Dioner (Navarro) at catcher. That's different than J.P. (Arencibia) and J.P. didn't have his best defensive year last year and that's no secret. Not that he's bad defensively, he just didn't have a good year defensively. Overall, we should be better but at the same time we can't just be complacent and think that it's going to automatically happen."
Earlier this spring, veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey told TSN.ca he believed this incarnation of the Blue Jays could be "blown up" if it underperforms for a second consecutive season. Bautista, about to begin what would be his sixth full season in Toronto, said he doesn't dwell on negative thoughts.
"Plus, that's a question better suited for Alex Anthopoulos, not me, because I can't make decisions when it comes to anything like that," he said.
Bautista hopes to be spending his 34th birthday, on October 19, in a playoff setting. Nobody's found the tonic to slow down Father Time but Bautista has no more a sense of urgency to win now, in his mid-30s, than he did in his younger days.
"It's always your number one driver is wanting to win," said Bautista. "I feel that this team is capable of winning, this organization is pretty close to accomplishing that. Let me just say there's nowhere else I'd rather be than on this team."
Bautista is aware that fans are anxious after the club's relatively quiet offseason. He reads his Twitter account.
"They have to trust the team," he said. "They have to be not only fans but they also have to love their organization and love the team and love their players. Hopefully they've created some sort of bond with us over the last couple of years because a lot of us have been here for a while. Hopefully they get to know us as people, as athletes and they believe in us as much as we believe in ourselves. We're going to go out and leave it out on the field every single day and hopefully they can do the same either at home or at the stadium when they come out to support us."
McGOWAN TO LONG RELIEF
Dustin McGowan has been saying since late last season he'd like to take one more shot, likely a final shot, at returning to the starting rotation.
Manager John Gibbons has been hesitant to embrace the idea and with time running out in spring training, the focus is on building up McGowan to be one of the long men out of the bullpen.
"He's kind of in limbo there," said Gibbons. "We want to be able to stretch him out anyway. If he's in the 'pen for multiple innings that would benefit us quite a bit down there. We know he can do two. If he can do three that would do wonders for us."
McGowan, who turns 32 on Monday, threw three scoreless innings against the Phillies in Clearwater on Thursday. He considered the accomplishment a milestone.
"It felt good to finally go three innings," said McGowan. "It's been quite a few years since I reached that mark."
After multiple shoulder surgeries which cost him the entirety of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, most of 2011 and all of 2012, McGowan returned in 2013 as a reliever, posting a 2.45 ERA in 25 appearances.
"I'm kind of interested to see how I'm going to feel tomorrow," said McGowan. "The way I feel right now I think I'm going to be just fine. I can usually tell right after I come out of the game how I'm going to feel. It's one of those days I feel good."
He won 12 games for the Blue Jays back in 2007. Gibbons managed that team.
"We think he's beyond that kind of stuff and I thought he thrived in the bullpen," said Gibbons. "I thought that was a good role for him."
McGowan was set back this spring by a stomach virus that kept him away for the club for a couple of days and resulted in him dropping eight pounds.
The calendar isn't his friend.
"He had desire to do it," said Gibbons of McGowan starting. "A lot of people had desire to see if he could do it but myself, personally, kind of had some reservations."
THE RUNNING GAME
The Blue Jays stole 112 bases last season, which tied the club for ninth with Colorado.
More than half of those stolen bases, a combined 57, are gone with the departures of Rajai Davis (45) via free agency and Emilio Bonifacio (12), who was traded last August.
Anthony Gose stole four bases last year and is expected to begin the season with Triple-A Buffalo.
"That's not one of our strengths," said manager John Gibbons. "Our speed has definitely dropped off. That's now how the team is built."
Toronto was fourth in the major leagues in home runs (185) last season, a number which figures to climb if the club gets injury-free seasons from Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie.
"The team's built for those guys in the middle to drive in a bunch of runs, hit some home runs and Reyes to get things going. We think we're strong. We've got some pop. We've got some guys that can produce some runs, top to bottom in the lineup."
Still, Gibbons wants to mitigate the all-or-nothing approach he feels his team had too often last season.
"We'll cut down on the strikeouts a little bit I think will definitely help us and (hitting coach Kevin) Seitzer's really good about that and he's working some game plans but that takes time," said Gibbons. "I think these guys have all been receptive to him."
Drew Hutchison has been dropped from his major league start on Saturday in favour of Todd Redmond.
Redmond was scheduled to pitch against the Rays on Friday in Port Charlotte but has been pushed back a day.
Aaron Sanchez will start on Friday, while Hutchison will pitch on Saturday but in a Triple-A game.
While the Blue Jays haven't confirmed publicly that Hutchison has made the team, the fact the coaching staff doesn't feel the need to see him versus major league talent this close to opening day bodes well for the 23-year-old.