Smoak, Saunders thriving in middle of order

Ex-Mariners teammates impressing Blue Jays' Gibbons

May 21st, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS -- With Jose Bautista getting a lion's share of the attention in regard to the Blue Jays' recent lineup shakeup, more responsibility has been heaped on new middle-of-the-order bats Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak.

Saunders and Smoak spent most of the first month hitting sixth and seventh, respectively, with Smoak more recently moving to the five-spot.

With middle-of-the-lineup staples Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion moving up, that has opened run-producing spots behind them that Smoak and Saunders have been charged with filling.

So far, so good.

Smoak, who hit cleanup the past three games, had at least a hit in each game and reached base at a .357 clip in those games.

Run-producing opportunities would likely be plentiful if not for Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Encarnacion clearing the bases through the first two games of the series.

"There's something to be said for playing every day, when you know you're playing every day," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons before Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Twins.

Gibbons said the opportunity to be a regular has helped Smoak settle in at the plate. Over six previous seasons, mostly in part-time roles with the Rangers, Mariners and Blue Jays, Smoak had never hit higher than .238.

Smoak began Saturday at .295 and his on-base percentage of .412 was 100 points higher than his career mark.

"[Smoak] played good for us last year in a different role," Gibbons said. "Now he's getting his opportunity. He's always been viewed in baseball as one of the top prospects back in his Texas days and Seattle days. He got new life over here and took advantage of it last year. Now he's getting a chance to play every day."

Saunders, who played with Smoak in Seattle, has shown glimpses of power, hitting 19 homers in 139 games with Seattle in 2012.

He hit his seventh home run Friday and has kept his average up through the first 37 games, entering Saturday at .317.

"I'd seen him a little bit when he was in Seattle. He's always had a ton of talent," Gibbons said. "He's played better than I really expected, to tell you the truth. He's been steady from Day 1."

Saunders said the key has been becoming more selective.

"I think getting into good hitters' counts, trying to see the ball [has been important]," Saunders said. "Not necessarily working deep into the count, but seeing a lot of pitches and trying to get good pitches to take good swings at, not trying to do so much."

That approach has worked against righties and lefties. Saunders, a left-handed hitter, was hitting .317 off right-handers, but maintained a solid .295 average against southpaws. Four of his seven homers, including Friday's solo shot off Taylor Rogers, have come against lefties.

"I think it's a myth that lefties can't handle lefties," Saunders said. "If you get good pitches to hit and you get into good counts, that's what matters."

Worth noting

• In the second game of his rehab assignment with Triple-A Buffalo on Friday, second baseman Devon Travis went 0-for-5 with a strikeout. He had three hits in his first game with Buffalo on Thursday after a successful four-game run with Class A Dunedin.

Reports had the club targeting Travis' return as soon as this weekend, but Gibbons said Saturday that the team is in no rush to bring him back.

"It's kind of up in the air, see how he progresses," Gibbons said. "You've got be careful you don't jump the gun on him, either. You get excited, he has a few good games, but he's missed so much time, and big league pitching is still different.

"But as far as health-wise, he says he feels great, so that's the important thing. But I don't think we want to get too giddy. You probably won't see him for a few days, anyway."

• Reliever Aaron Loup joined Buffalo as he continues to rehab a sore left elbow. Loup pitched in three games with Dunedin as he rehabs a left flexor strain sustained in early March.

Loup has a 3.11 ERA in 228 appearances, all with Toronto, since debuting in 2012. With Brett Cecil out a least a month with a torn lat muscle, Toronto has Chad Girodo and Pat Vinditte as lefty relief options.