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Joey Bats reclaims nicknaming rights

Joey Bats reclaims nicknaming rights
ST. PETERSBURG -- After a relatively slow start to the season, it appears as though Jose Bautista has recaptured his formidable form.

Bautista went through a prolonged period of well-documented struggles at the beginning of the season, but the month of May has brought forward a resurgence at the plate.

The two-time winner of the Hank Aaron Award believes most of that success is simply tied to his maintaining a more patient approach at the plate.

"Just remaining selective, trying to hit my pitch and to my strength, which is hitting it hard," Bautista said. "I feel good with what I've been doing, because I've been able to contribute more as of late. This month, I've been much more productive than the first month."

Bautista hit .181 with three home runs, 10 RBIs and a .634 OPS in April. A high number of walks were still there as evidenced by a .320 on-base percentage, but he recorded a total of just five extra-base hits in 83 at-bats.

Those aren't the type of numbers most people are accustomed to seeing from Bautista. May, however, has been more like it, with the two-time All-Star hitting .280 to complement nine home runs and 19 RBIs while posting a .989 OPS.

"When he addresses strikes and when he doesn't chase pitches out of the strike zone, he's at his most dangerous. He just looks more [on] time, with a better load, a better rhythm overall. He's putting good swings on the ball right now."
-- John Farrell
on Jose Bautista

The only category which has taken a hit over the past few weeks is Bautista's walk total. He has been issued just nine this month compared to 18 strikeouts, but it's apparent that opposing pitchers are attacking him in the strike zone more often than in years past.

Another change the league has made is with its defensive alignment when Bautista comes to the plate. The shift is something Bautista has seen plenty of before, but this season, opposing teams are going to it on a regular basis. Bautista admitted it's "a little frustrating" but added it hasn't changed the way he approaches each at-bat.

That might be true, but Blue Jays manager John Farrell has seen Bautista go the opposite way with more frequency than he has in the past.

"I've heard some comments about the shift -- not pleasant ones," Farrell said with a laugh. "But at the same time, he is hitting the ball where it's pitched, and I think what it does for him is it keeps his front shoulder rather than looking to pull the ball and pulling off some pitches.

"Whether that leads to a couple of line-drive base hits, I'm sure Jose is feeling a little bit better about himself getting multiple hits in some recent games here."

Even through the earlier struggles, Bautista was still doing the little things that most wouldn't necessarily expect from a franchise player. He has never been afraid to get down and dirty, and there was no better evidence of that than on Monday night in St. Petersburg.

The Blue Jays were holding onto a slim lead in the top of the eighth inning with runners on the corners, Bautista on first and Edwin Encarnacion coming to the plate. Encarnacion hit a ground ball that appeared to be tailor made for a double play, but Bautista went hard into second with a sideways slide while still managing to get a piece of the base with his hand.

The slide sent Sean Rodriguez flying, preventing the double play to allow the inning to continue and another run to cross the plate. It was the epitome of a hard-nosed -- but clean -- play that required a little bit of extra effort.

That type of action has been a point of emphasis for a young Blue Jays squad this season, and it gets driven home when the leader of the clubhouse is the one to make the move.

"I think we all try -- when the opportunity comes -- to go in and break up double plays," Bautista said. "It's just sometimes situations arise where it is viewed more, or more under the microscope, and more attention [gets] drawn to it because of the game.

"There's no art to it, and there's no illusion. You just slide to the bag and you can shift your feet to try to distract the defender that's making the turn. There's no cheating or trying to cause any type of illusion, at least not from my end. As long as you can reach the bag with your hand, I think you're in safe play."

As much as the Blue Jays need a veteran player to set that type of example, they need Bautista's productive bat in the middle of the order even more. The club managed to survive with an above .500 record through the early stages of the year as Bautista struggled and cleanup hitter Adam Lind was inconsistent to the point where he was eventually optioned to the Minors.

Now Bautista is paired with Encarnacion in the heart of the order and appears to be hitting his stride. The Dominican native has four homers in his past eight games and is tied for the Major League lead in home runs for the month of May.

The mechanics at the plate have remained the same, but the approach has changed.

"When he addresses strikes and when he doesn't chase pitches out of the strike zone, he's at his most dangerous," Farrell said. "He just looks more [on] time, with a better load, a better rhythm overall. He's putting good swings on the ball right now."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB.

Toronto Blue Jays, Jose Bautista