Bautista joins elite class with homer No. 50
Slugger becomes 26th player, first Blue Jay, to reach mark
TORONTO -- Inside an interview room at Rogers Centre on Thursday, Jose Bautista's bat of choice -- a black maple Rideau Crusher -- was placed on the table in front of him. Beside the piece of lumber was a baseball, bearing a bruise left by one of his violent swings.
That ball, with its obvious scuff mark, was victim No. 50 for the Blue Jays slugger.
In the first inning against the Mariners, Bautista put himself in an elite class of power hitters, launching his 50th home run of the year. It was a majestic solo shot off ace Felix Hernandez that accounted for all of Toronto's offense in a 1-0 victory.
Shortly after the win, Bautista was still wrapping his head around his accomplishment.
"To tell you the truth, I really haven't let it sink in yet," Bautista said. "Right now, I'm just really honored and happy."
The Blue Jays right fielder was honored to be a part of an impressive list that includes some of the greatest sluggers in baseball's long history. With that first-inning blast into Toronto's bullpen, Bautista became only the 26th player in Major League history to reach the half-century mark in a single season.
With his parents -- Sandra and Luis Americo -- sitting in the stands, Bautista sent a 2-1 fastball from Hernandez arcing high over left field. Seattle outfielder Michael Saunders backpedaled, stopping at the wall to watch as the baseball dropped over for the historic home run.
After his 50th home run trot of the season, and following a handful of hugs from his Blue Jays teammates, Bautista emerged from the dugout and waved, answering a curtain call from the roaring crowd.
"This is the first time I've been on a team that I've ever had a guy who hit 50 home runs," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "So, it's a first for me, too. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy than Jose Bautista."
That solo blast -- Bautista's 23rd such homer this year -- put him in a class of sluggers that includes the likes of Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Willie Mays, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, among others. The Blue Jays' leading home run act is the first player to reach the 50-homer plateau since 2007, when Alex Rodriguez clubbed 54 for the Yankees and Prince Fielder belted 50 for the Brewers.
Bautista's blast marked the 42nd time (22nd in the American League) that a player has achieved at least 50 homers in a season, though he is the first Blue Jays player to accomplish the feat. Prior to this season, Toronto's club record for homers in one season belonged to George Bell, who hit 47 in 1987.
Bautista has paced the Blue Jays' offense, which ranks first in the Majors with 234 home runs this season. Bautista's 26 home runs after the All-Star break and his 31 long balls at home are both franchise records for Toronto. He was also named the AL's Player of the Month for July and August.
"It's a rare number to reach," Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells said of Bautista's 50th home run. "It's been a blast to watch him go to work. ... We've had as much fun watching it as he has going through it. It's been fun."
On Sept. 15, Bautista tied Bell's mark with a home run on the road in Baltimore. One game later, he drilled an offering into the seats atop the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston to claim the club record for himself. Bautista then launched a pitch from Red Sox right-hander Josh Beckett out of Fenway on Saturday to pull within one of No. 50.
Used as a part-time outfielder and third baseman a year ago, Bautista belted just 13 home runs (10 coming over the final month) for the Blue Jays. This season, Bautista opened the year as Toronto's primary leadoff man, but made his first All-Star team and found his way into the No. 3 spot of the order by the end of June.
"I was pretty confident going into the season that I was going to have a good year," Bautista said. "But, nowhere in my mind did it ever cross that I would hit 50 home runs."
Bautista's jump to 50 homers this season represents the second-largest increase in home runs from one season to the next in baseball history. In 1973, Davey Johnson clubbed 43 homers for Atlanta after having five for Baltimore the previous year. With two more shots, Bautista would surpass Johnson's record for the largest single-season increase in power production.
"September of last year, you could kind of see what he was capable of doing," said Wells, referring to the 10 home runs Bautista hit over the final month a year ago. "You don't expect a guy to come out and hit 50 home runs in pretty much his first full season as a starter, but obviously he has that type of potential and that type of power."
Given his incredible increase in homers this season, Bautista was asked point blank if he has ever used performance-enhancing drugs.
"Absolutely not," replied Bautista, answering before the question was finished.
That said, Bautista acknowledged that he understands why fans might jump to such a conclusion about his unexpected season.
"I do, because of the history of what happened," said Bautista, referring to the handful of sluggers who have been tied to performance-enhancing drugs in the past. "But, those days are gone. I think it's my job, and a lot of you guys in this room and other people that can talk to the public, to make sure that they get the facts right.
"It's been six, seven years since we've had a new [testing] program in place for performance-enhancing drugs, or whatever you want to call them. It seems to be working. It's the most strict in professional sports, so I don't see why those questions come up. I think the only reason why is because of the history of what happened."
Bautista added that he did not have any anger toward the players who have tested positive for performance enhancers in the past.
"There's nothing I can control about that," he said. "I just have to deal with it and I have been all season long. I'm not going to back down from any questions. I've got nothing to hide."Beyond the 50 blasts, Bautista has hit .265 with 34 doubles, 96 walks, 102 runs scored and 115 RBIs through 151 games for the Blue Jays. It has been a breakout showing for a player who had stints with four big league teams in the four years prior to Toronto acquiring him from Pittsburgh in a Minor League trade in August 2008.
"It's been a long journey," Bautista said. "I think the most important thing was that I came to this organization in a critical point of my career. I needed another chance and I found it here. Maybe not right away, but eventually. Ever since I got here, they told me that they believed in my ability. I believed in myself as well.
"All I needed was another chance and I got it here. I think that, and the changes that I made in the approach and the swing, have ultimately led to the success. I'm very thankful to the organization for giving me that second chance."