DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It looked like just another mighty hack at a 2-and-0 fastball on the inner half of the plate, the kind of pitch Jose Bautista has been pummeling for the past three years now.
Little did anyone know it was about to become the swing that wrecked the Toronto Blue Jays' season, once and for all.
“Maybe I had a little too much pine tar, or I held onto the bat for too long,” Bautista says now, seven months later. “But I felt a little pop, and a sharp pain.”
What he felt, it turned out, was a partial tear of the sheath that holds the tendon in his left wrist in place. It was only July 16. But except for five plate appearances a few weeks later, his season was already over.
And for his team, which was rampaging through the Grapefruit League at this time a year ago, The End for its most feared hitter was pretty much The End, period.
You do the math:
On the day Jose Bautista hurt his wrist, the Blue Jays were 45-44 and were six runs away from leading the entire sport in runs scored.
From that moment on, they went 28-45, scored the fewest runs in the American League and tied for the third-fewest runs scored in either league.
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"Hey, everything is going to revolve around him," says his new manager, John Gibbons, whose heart is thumping at a much more comfortable rate this spring now that Bautista is back, mashing baseballs into the palm trees. "Those big bats in the middle of that lineup, the proven run-producers -- you can’t replace those guys."
Well, let’s just say that the man who leads the major leagues in home runs since Opening Day 2010 (even though he didn’t play for almost half a season) would qualify.
Now to be totally fair and accurate, it wasn’t Bautista’s injury alone that blew up all the Blue Jays’ beautiful dreams in 2012.
Losing three staring pitchers in five days in June -- that wasn’t real helpful. Setting an all-time franchise record for most days of disabled list time by the entire roster (1,278) -- that wasn’t part of the blueprint, either.
But losing a fellow who was on pace to hit close to 50 home runs? If that wasn’t at the top of their list of fatal issues, it sure was close.
"In fairness to the rest of the team, he wasn't the only one who went down," says general manager Alex Anthopoulos. "But it's a lot easier to handle when it's your 9-hole hitter going down. When you’re losing your 3-hole hitter, there's going to be an impact."
So how big was that impact? In some ways, Bautista stands as a human statement that, apparently, there are some things Wins Above Replacement can't measure.
According to baseball-reference.com’s WAR calculations, he was on pace, when he got hurt, to be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of six wins more than an average replacement player. So losing him when they did should only have cost his team between two and three wins the rest of the way. Theoretically.
But if you watched the Blue Jays try to win, construct a lineup or even function off the field without their clubhouse Lion King last year, it seemed clear the ripple effect of his absence was worth more than just one win a month.
"When a guy like that goes down," says catcher J.P. Arencibia, "everyone suffers."
But last year is ancient history now, kind of like the Peloponnesian War. And the Macarena. So there's no point in wondering anymore what might have been if Bautista or his many walking-wounded teammates had stayed healthy last year. It's time for a new, way more relevant question:
How important is Jose Bautista to this team, loaded -- or is that reloaded? -- as it may appear to be?
When a guy like that goes down, everyone suffers.
”-- Catcher J.P. Arencibia
All the talk this spring has been about the new guys who have infused this camp with so much positivity -- Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Maicer Izturis, Melky Cabrera and their ilk. But when the manager is asked if he thinks it's still Bautista who is his most important player, John Gibbons doesn't hesitate.
"I agree," he says. "Look what he’s done the last few years. He’s a threat, in any ballpark. And home runs win. They're instant runs. You can be playing a tight game, and one swing of the bat from that guy, game's over. Or he's the kind of guy who, the other team's so careful with him, he draws a walk and now you've got that runner on base you need to get things going. …
"When you have guys like that, there's something about them," Gibbons says. "You can’t win without them."
So if the manager could have one wish come true this year, he’d be very tempted to wish for a healthy Bautista, from Game 1 through 162. And how healthy is the Blue Jays' most important player? Well, he's talking like the healthiest man in North America.
"I feel fine," he says, five and a half months after surgery to repair the tendon sheath in that wrist.
"It’s a pretty simple procedure," he goes on. "As long as you’re a good healer, you shouldn't have any trouble coming back from it. People have that surgery all the time and come back. … I did my research, and it's true. It’s a pretty common surgery for baseball players. I mean, it's not as common as Tommy John (surgery), or a labrum for the shoulder. But people have had that surgery and been successful at a pretty good rate."
He then ticks off a list of players who have had it: Sam Fuld for one (with the same surgeon, Dr. Thomas Graham). Gary Sheffield for another. And Mark DeRosa, who just happens to be hanging out in this same locker room, about 50 feet away.
But it’s funny he should mention that name, because DeRosa’s 2009 surgery shouldn’t be filling Bautista, or anyone else, with a sense of overflowing optimism. And why is that? Because “it didn’t work,” DeRosa says now.
"I’m a tough guy to talk to," he says, "because I personally feel -- and not to make any excuses -- that it totally handicapped my entire career since I've done it. I’ve seen my power cut in half."
Now obviously, DeRosa is far from a perfect comparison to Jose Bautista. One guy is a super-utility man who has had two 20-homer seasons in 15 years in the big leagues. The other was coming off back-to-back years of 54 and 43 home runs when his tendon sheath unraveled on him last July.
But DeRosa was in the midst of the best two-season offensive stretch of his career -- 21 homers in 2008, 23 in 2009 -- when he hurt his wrist. He's hit exactly one home run in three seasons since. So his advice to Jose Bautista this spring is this:
Don't overdo it.
"As a hitter, you always want to be in the cage," says DeRosa, who was signed by the Jays to a one-year, $750,000 deal this winter. "You always want to be working on your craft. But there comes a point where too many swings on that wrist become detrimental. Especially for him. … When you're hitting third, and you're a 40-50 home run guy, it’s not easy to take a step back once in a while."
But unlike DeRosa, who kept trying to play through his own wrist issues in 2009, Bautista shut down his own comeback attempts almost immediately last August, then had surgery on Sept. 4. And now, based on the way he's feeling and swinging the bat, he says he has zero worries about his wrist holding up all season, or beyond.
"If my wrist was hurting, or I didn't feel quite as well as I should, then maybe," he says. "But I feel fine. That thought doesn't even cross my mind."
ESPN's injury guru, Stephania Bell, concurs, telling us that if, after this particular surgery, Bautista has his strength and range of motion back -- if he's swinging without restrictions and if he's having no problems now -- then there's no reason to expect him to have problems down the road.
And that seems to be the case. So if Bautista spends more time this spring thinking about the talent around him than about his tendon sheath, you can understand why.
It was almost exactly two years ago, when the Blue Jays signed him to a five-year, $65 million extension, that Anthopoulos told him better days were coming for this team. And whaddaya know. The GM wasn't just blowing smoke to keep the guy around.
"I don't want to say he promised me," Bautista says now. "But he mentioned it. He used it as a recruiting tool, as added incentive for me to sign that deal. He said, 'When the time is right, during your time here, we are going to put together a team that is going to be able to compete, and be in the playoffs, and contend, year after year.' Well, I signed a five-year deal. So obviously, it didn't make sense for him to do it in my last year."
But you know what kind of team Alex Anthopoulos was really aspiring to build back then? A team with so much talent and depth, it could survive an injury to anyone on the roster -- even Jose Bautista.
"When I first got this job as the GM," Anthopoulos says, "I was asked who I thought was the face of this franchise. And I said my hope is, at some point, when we become a contending team, that we don't have a face. And I used the Phillies, back in 2010, as an example, [a team with] enough great players that you're not so reliant on one guy. I think if you’re that reliant on one player, in our sport, it's hard to win. If you look at the great teams, the contending teams, they don't have one face.
"A sport like the NBA is different. One guy will make or break your team. He'll play 42 out of 48 minutes a night and dominate. But in baseball, it's different. And we've had it here. We had Roy Halladay. Best starter in the league. Won Cy Youngs. But one player couldn't carry us to the playoffs. So in baseball, you'd better be deep. You need great players to win. But you’d better have more than one."
And this team now does -- with a former batting champ (Reyes), a Cy Young winner (Dickey) and baseball's foremost innings-eater of the 2000s (Buehrle) joining a 42-home run masher (Edwin Encarnacion) and one of baseball's rising stars (Brett Lawrie).
None of that, clearly, has gone unnoticed by the man in the middle of this lineup.
"I've been on talented teams," says Bautista. "But I’ve never felt like any 25-man roster that I've been a part of has been this loaded."
So now, all that roster has to do is play the way it was built to play. Uhh, that and keep its most important player as happy -- and healthy -- as he's feeling right this minute.