On April 29, the Toronto Blue Jays were 12-14, and Jose Bautista looked around the clubhouse and wondered why. "We've got a great team," he said, and it sounded more like his true feelings than the rah-rah nonsense players on bad teams repeat to make themselves feel better.
Granted, the idea of a great team is not something with which Bautista is intimately familiar. Over the course of his 10 seasons in the major leagues, Bautista has spent just one year with a team that finished with a winning record. He may very well own one of the more dubious titles in the game: best everyday player never to participate in a playoff game. The best player, certainly, is Seattle ace Felix Hernandez, and Bautista does have competition among position players from White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn and Texas outfielder Alex Rios. On the strength of his peak seasons, and his tremendous start to 2014, the argument in favor of Bautista may be sturdiest.
"I don't want to think of myself that way," he said. "I don't want to put myself in that sentence."
Should the Blue Jays continue playing like they have since that late-April day, he won't. On the strength of a 27-14 stretch since, they sit atop the AL East with a 4 ½-game lead, the biggest in the league. Their plus-35 run differential is fourth in baseball. Only Oakland and Colorado have scored more runs than their 321. The Blue Jays are hitting a ton, pitching and catching the ball enough, and taking full advantage of the mediocrity pervading a division that usually teems with excellence.
Bautista is their face, their conscience, their leader and their best player. He is 33 now, four years removed from his out-of-nowhere 54-home run season that turned him from nobody into superstar overnight. Along came the requisite steroid whispers, the general suspicion, most of which quieted down when he followed by leading the AL in home runs again in 2011. Injuries quieted him in 2012 and 2013, only for him to roar back with a classic Bautista performance: more walks than strikeouts, lots of hard-hit balls, home runs that scream as they tear off the bat, a .311/.434/.548 line that's every bit as pretty as it looks.
His swing remains a violent buggy-whip with which he's making more contact than ever. His bat speed shows no sign of relenting, and with a lineup that includes Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion and a troupe of other power-hitting mercenaries, the Blue Jays show none, either.
"We have the bodies," Bautista said. "We have the talent. It's just a matter of whether we're going to perform."
He saw this. Well, maybe not this. In their 41 games since April 29, the Blue Jays are averaging nearly five runs a game. Better yet, their starting pitching sports a 3.40 ERA, making up for a bullpen that remains troublesome bordering on flammable and strengthening an area even Bautista believed needed extra help.
As one of five players who agreed to defer salary if the Blue Jays would sign free-agent pitcher Ervin Santana, Bautista sent a tacit message that Toronto's staff has answered. Mark Buehrle may well start the All-Star Game. R.A. Dickey looks better than last season. Young, hard-throwing Drew Hutchinson and Marcus Stroman breathe upside. And J.A. Happ certainly is a serviceable-enough No. 5.
It won't preclude the Blue Jays, of course, from getting aggressive come the trade deadline. Particularly if its lead holds, Toronto expects to fortify itself somewhere, if not the front-end trade market for pitchers. The Blue Jays understand opportunities to win the AL East don't often present themselves, and if one stares them in the face, it's their duty to grab it.
"Not to sound like I'm complaining, but after a while you kind of want to play in those meaningful games even more," Bautista said. "The fact that it hasn't happened is frustrating. You also know that there's a lot of things out of your control that have to go right."
The Blue Jays' 2013, for example, went all wrong, like so many of the sub-.500 seasons that have led to this ugly record for teams with which Bautista finished his previous nine years: 748-871, a .462 winning percentage. The trades that brought Reyes and Buehrle and Dickey and a slew of other big-name players turned the Blue Jays into the game's most disappointing team. The season gnawed at Bautista, enough for him to actively address some of his weaker qualities to set a better example for others.
Not only is he avoiding arguing with umpires as vociferously as he once did, he's more or less steering clear of any confrontation at all. Already one of the most valuable players in the clubhouse because of his ability to seamlessly transition among the team's English and Spanish speakers, Bautista continues to assert himself even more, to remind those who don't know that he's not here for the money or the glory or the most votes among AL All-Star candidates, all things he's got.
"What I really want," he said, "is to play in the playoffs."
Because while finding yourself on a list with Ernie Banks and George Sisler and Harry Heilmann and Luke Appling and Ron Santo – Hall of Famers all – almost always connotes something good, in this case it signifies the one thing Bautista does not want to be. He thought about it that April day and kept saying, "I think we're going to be fine," and right he was. He doesn't care if it's a division crown or a wild-card berth that gives him one chance to shine.
He just doesn't want to be the best hitter never to play in the postseason. And it's easy to understand why.
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