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Offseason work paying off for Encarnacion

ANAHEIM -- The Blue Jays have an unlikely person to thank for Edwin Encarnacion's red-hot start to the 2012 season.

All-Star second baseman and division rival Robinson Cano is the one responsible for Encarnacion's work during the offseason with former Major Leaguer Luis Mercedes.

Encarnacion and Mercedes hit it off right away, and after almost two months of hard work, they put the finishing touches on a revamped swing that has Toronto's designated hitter among the league leaders in virtually every offensive category this season.

"This was the first year we worked together," Encarnacion said of his time spent with Mercedes in San Pedro de Macoris of the Dominican Republic. "My good friend Robinson Cano was working with him every year. Cano invited me to his complex, because he had a baseball academy he started and he invited me to his stadium.

"That's why, this year, I went to work with him and we did a great job, did great work in the offseason to help me prepare for this year."

Contrary to popular belief, Encarnacion said he doesn't have a new swing. Encarnacion started utilizing a more compact and repeatable swing last season, but an adjustment was made during the offseason on how he finished the follow-through.

Encarnacion spent his entire career using a one-handed finish. Now he goes all the way through with two hands, and the idea behind the alteration is that it eliminates him from pulling off the ball too aggressively.

The 29-year-old is able to keep his swing inside the ball more frequently and drive it to the opposite field with increased regularity. It's still a work in progress, as Encarnacion admitted he still has a tendency to let go of the bat with his top hand, but it's an improved method of attack compared to previous years.

"The two-handed finish to his swing has caused it to be more compact, and I think a more consistently repeated swing path," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "He's obviously hitting with a lot of confidence. We've had the benefit of seeing him every day and he goes into the box looking for a pitch and when he gets it, he hasn't missed it. There's a fundamental difference [in the mechanics]."

Encarnacion has emerged as Toronto's early-season most valuable player. He entered play on Monday tied for the American League lead in extra-base hits (17) and home runs (nine) while also ranking second in RBIs (25), total bases (66) and sixth in slugging (.611).

On the surface, it appears to be a remarkable turnaround for a player who has been notoriously inconsistent in the past. But dig a little deeper and the results from the 2011 All-Star break and beyond are somewhat staggering.

Since July 14, 2011, Encarnacion is hitting .287 with 20 home runs, 61 RBIs and a .366 on-base percentage. It's by far the longest period of prolonged success that Encarnacion has experienced at the big league level, but it's the level of play the native of the Dominican Republic said he has always expected of himself.

"From the All-Star break, last year to now, I've been doing a great job hitting," Encarnacion said. "I've been playing every day with no problems, and that happens when you get regular time. When they give you the opportunity to play every day, like the way I have from the All-Star break to now, you can put up some good numbers.

"I've been waiting for my pitch to hit. That's one of the things I've been doing better now. I've been swinging at the pitch I can really swing at and really hit the ball hard."

Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos has received a lot of the credit for sticking with Encarnacion through the good and bad, but things almost didn't work out that way. Toronto was left frustrated by Encarnacion's struggles on the field and at the plate in June 2010.

The level of disappointment resulted in Encarnacion being designated for assignment by the club, which put him up for grabs to any team in the Major Leagues. Each organization opted to take a pass and Encarnacion found himself being outrighted to Triple-A Las Vegas.

The veteran infielder returned just over a week later and likely saved his job at the end of the season by hitting five home runs over a four-game series in Minnesota to cap what had otherwise been a lackluster year.

Anthopoulos remained intrigued by the overall power numbers and opted to sign Encarnacion to a one-year contract worth $2.5 million, which included an option for 2012. At the time, Anthopoulos felt Encarnacion had the ability to hit 30-plus home runs and pointed to his final tally of 21 in just 332 at-bats during that 2010 campaign as the prime evidence.

It took a little while for those projected results to surface, but from July on, that's exactly the type of player Encarnacion has become.

"Alex deserves a lot of credit with this, because he is the one that has talked about him repeatedly, and consistently, with the belief that there is an above-average offensive player in there," Farrell said. "He has shown it for stretches and we're seeing it at the start of the year this year versus other years.

"Every year you're probably looking through the group of players that might be available, and who is that 28-to-30 year-old that hasn't broken through yet? Well, he is in that group, and like most players, they get to a point where they understand their abilities more readily and they have a much more clear game plan night in and night out."

Encarnacion's impressive start to the season has turned him into a fan favorite at Rogers Centre, which is something that seemed entirely impossible a year ago. Encarnacion was nearly run out of town during the first half of 2011 thanks in part to prolonged offensive struggles and even worse results in the field.

Now that he's armed with a revamped approach at the plate, the results have followed and the jeers Encarnacion was hearing from the hometown crowd have turned to cheers. He would like to see that continue, but he knows ultimately his 2012 season is going to come down to whether he can maintain the success for a prolonged period of time.

"I have to keep working all season long," Encarnacion said. "Keep doing the same practice I was doing in the offseason and try to be consistent. That's the main thing I want to be, consistent all year.

"But it feels great hitting this way right now."

Toronto Blue Jays, Edwin Encarnacion