Sports Baseball

BLUE JAYS

'I’ve never seen him look so good': Blue Jays' Gibbons on Bautista

By Steve Buffery, Toronto Sun

Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista (19) hits a foul ball against the Detroit Tigers during first inning Grapefruit baseball spring training action in Dunedin, Fla., on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista (19) hits a foul ball against the Detroit Tigers during first inning Grapefruit baseball spring training action in Dunedin, Fla., on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

DUNEDIN — Blue Jays manager John Gibbons is batty for Joey Bats this spring.

“Tell you what, I’ve never seen him look so good,” Gibbons said of Jose Bautista.

“He’s in great shape, he looks stronger, he’s in a good frame of mind.”

Bautista has reason to be in a good frame of mind.

He’s eating up pitching in Grapefruit League play as he gets ready to represent the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. In four games, the Jays’ right fielder has five hits in 10 at-bats with two walks and four RBI.

On Thursday against Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Ben Lively at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Bautista smacked a line-drive, three-run home run to left-centre. He also picked up a single and walked.

“Any ball that goes out of the yard you gotta feel good about,” Bautista said. “Once it clears the fence and you can run a little slower, you always have a little more satisfaction.”

Bautista had a down year in 2016 mostly as a result of landing on the disabled list on two occasions, suffering a turf toe injury in June and then a Grade 1 sprain in his left knee when he fell to the turf making a play against the Rays. Both fluky mishaps.

Bautista arrived in camp this spring early in great shape as he will be competing in the WBC later this month, opening with a game against Canada on March 9 and then the USA on March 11, both games in Miami.

Gibbons is looking for a big bounce-back year from the slugger.

“Last year he ran into the wall,” Gibbons said. “Those aren’t injuries that happened because he’s wearing down. They were freak things and they cost him a lot of games.

"I think if he played those games he would have been up in similar (offensive) categories where he always is. But he’s in a good frame right now, he playing good.”

The one thing Bautista will be missing this season is the familiarity of having Edwin Encarnacion hit behind him.

“You never really know,” Gibbons said when asked how much Bautista will miss Encarnacion, who signed with Cleveland in the off-season.

“I think that’s why it was crucial to get (Kendrys) Morales. Watching Kendrys move around and watching everything about him, I mean the guy can hit. And he’s done that for a long time so that will definitely soften the blow, no doubt. But who knows.”

Bautista took over the lead-off spot in the batting order last year when the lineup needed a spark but Gibbons believes, barring an emergency, he’ll be hitting in his usual spot, with Josh Donaldson, Bautista and Morales batting 2-3-4 and second baseman Devon Travis batting first if he’s healthy.

“I think that’s where he fits best,” said Gibbons. “That’s where he made his name with us. I think that’s where he wants to hit.

"We had to hit him lead off and he did a pretty good job there but that’s really not who he is. That was out of necessity. And hopefully out of necessity he doesn’t end up back there, but he could too.”

The manager hopes that the WBC gives Bautista, and other Jays competing in the tournament, a nice jump start on the regular season.

Bautista doesn’t seem to think the tournament will make much of a difference to how he feels on April 3 when the Jays open the season in Baltimore.

“I’m hoping that I’m ready to go when opening day starts and I know that I would be if the tournament wasn’t played at that moment,” he said. “But I’ve played in it before and I’ve also gone into a season ready after playing in the tournament so I don’t think it’s going to change me being ready or not.”

THE 'SPARK' GOES OUT

Blue Jays’ Rule 5 pick Glenn Sparkman injured his right thumb during pitchers fielding practice here on Thursday morning.

“We haven’t heard anything final about it,” said manager John Gibbons.

The Jays have to return the right-hander to Kansas City if he doesn’t spend the entire year with Toronto. Joe Biagini was a Jays Rule 5 pick last year.

Last year’s 20-game winner, J.A. Happ, had his first start of Grapefruit League play facing the Philadelphia Phillies in a game that finished 8-8. The lefty went two innings, giving up one hit, no walks and struck out two.

“Felt good,” said Happ. “Especially in the second, we were able to kind of start trying to use everything. Two innings, 30 pitches is kind of how we draw it up. We’ll definitely take it as a good day.”

Jose Bautista and outfield prospect Anthony Alford, who went opposite field in the bottom of the seventh, both smacked homers for the Jays.

“Alfie’s one of our prized prospects. Very limited baseball experience being a football guy,” said Gibbons. “We all think the more he plays, just get him out there and if it all comes together for him, he’s so talented, he could be really, really good.”

The two sides pounded out 27 hits, made three errors, walked nine, and went through 17 pitchers in a game that last three hours and 24 minutes.

“They don’t need to water board anymore, just make them watch these games,” said Gibbons.

sbuffery@postmedia.com