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Helping to spark bats, Encarnacion hits 200th HR

After slow start, first baseman goes yard on three straight nights to reach milestone

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays' offense has been one of the best in baseball over the past couple of weeks, but if Edwin Encarnacion starts swinging the bat the way he did on Thursday night, it could become even more lethal.

Encarnacion hit a pair of home runs to help lead the Blue Jays to a 12-6 victory over the Phillies. It was Encarnacion's first multi-homer game of the season and the 12th of his career.

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The second-inning homer off right-hander A.J. Burnett also marked No. 200 of Encarnacion's career. It's a memorable milestone for a lot of players, but perhaps one that is even more appreciated by Encarnacion, considering he was almost written off earlier in his career.

"That's a big deal for me," Encarnacion said through interpreter Luis Rivera. "Through the years that I've been playing, that's No. 200, and I'm personally very proud of that. There were tough years and I had to go through it. I learned from those, and those years made me a better player. I knew down deep I was capable of being the player I am right now, and I'm showing it."

Encarnacion has been one of the most valuable hitters in the Major Leagues since 2012, but there were a lot of bumps on the road before he eventually became an All-Star. This is the same player who was once designated for assignment by Toronto in 2010 and non-tendered by Oakland later that offseason.

The 31-year-old never really found a permanent home until the tail end of 2011, when a strong second half of the season earned him another year in Toronto. He went on to enjoy a pair of banner seasons in the American League, and along the way was rewarded with a three-year contract extension.

Perhaps the Blue Jays have been spoiled by his overall production, and that's one reason why his slow start to the 2014 campaign has been a bit of a surprise. He entered play on Thursday hitting just .242 with four home runs and a .773 OPS.

Despite the prolonged struggles, there has never been much concern within the organization that Encarnacion wouldn't turn things around. Manager John Gibbons spent the past couple of weeks saying it was only a matter of time, and based on the results from the past two days, he might be right.

In addition to Thursday's two home runs, Encarnacion also went deep in each of his previous two games. For the veteran first baseman, most of that comes down to better timing at the plate.

"I'm swinging at better pitches, I have more confidence and I feel great at the plate," said Encarnacion, who has homered in three consecutive games for the first time since April 23-26, 2013.

Another player who has made his presence felt recently is corner infielder Juan Francisco. The 26-year-old was promoted from Triple-A Buffalo when Adam Lind went on the disabled list with a sore lower back, and he has been a difference-maker with the bat ever since.

Francisco went 3-for-3 with a homer Thursday night and is batting .311 (19-for-61) on the season. He flew under the radar earlier this year by signing a Minor League contract with Toronto after he was released during Spring Training by the Brewers.

It just so happens that Encarnacion played a major role in that transaction. The two knew each other from their time together with Cincinnati back in 2009, and it was a phone call from Encarnacion that caused Francisco to ultimately pick the Blue Jays over a couple of other teams.

"I've known Juan for a long time," Encarnacion said. "He was playing with me in Cincinnati. When he was young, I was older than him. He's one of my best friends. He had a couple of more teams to go, so I called him and asked him to come here, because they can give you the opportunity to play here at this level. He knows he's a big league player, so I tried to bring him here so he can help us to win games."

Francisco appeared as though he was in danger of losing his job when Brett Lawrie returns from a right hamstring injury. Lawrie could be back by Saturday, and that, combined with Lind being activated off the DL, hasn't left much wiggle room for one of Toronto's hottest hitters.

One way the Blue Jays could get around that is by moving Lawrie to second base. That's something Toronto did during Interleague Play, but has preferred to avoid in other situations. Gibbons declined to get into specifics, but said after Thursday night's game he'll find a way to keep using Francisco.

"He hits them as hard as anybody ... doesn't matter where he's playing," Gibbons said. "We'll find a way to get him at-bats, I'll put it that way. He deserves it. We're better with him in there, sure looks that way to me."

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

Toronto Blue Jays, Edwin Encarnacion