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Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista watches a long fly ball from the batting cage at spring training in Dunedin, Fla., on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista watches a long fly ball from the batting cage at spring training in Dunedin, Fla., on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

It’s been a tough year for Bautista – but don’t underestimate him just yet Add to ...

The production has stalled, both offensively and defensively, from what Toronto Blue Jays fans have become accustomed to from Jose Bautista.

The booming home runs are not flying out of the ballpark at the rate they did in the past, and the once-feared arm in right field appears to have surpassed its best-before date.

Chalk it up to a once splendid player who, at the age of 35, is entering his senior years, in major-league baseball terms, in which everyday wear and tear is starting to extract its inevitable toll.

But despite the obvious slippage, a healthy Bautista remains a fierce and proud competitor, a commanding clubhouse presence that the Blue Jays will have to lean on heavily if their lofty World Series expectations are to be fulfilled.

Toronto manager John Gibbons knows this, the reason he confidently put the slugger’s name back on top of the batting order Thursday night against the Los Angeles Angels after Bautista was activated for duty after 15 days on the disabled list with a bum knee.

“He’s a feared hitter in this league,” Gibbons said of the player who went into this season having slugged 227 home runs over the previous six seasons. “Everyone knows where he is in the lineup, when he’s coming up, when he’s on deck. He can burn you; he can burn you with the best of them.”

It has been a tough year, no doubt, for Bautista.

He has endured two trips to the disabled list, which cost him 45 games. And he lost another game in May, serving a one-game suspension for his role in a wild on-field melee against the Texas Rangers, in which Bautista took a roundhouse right on the chin from Rougned Odor.

Bautista was batting just .222 heading into Thursday night, with 15 home runs in 80 games – not the type of season he had envisioned.

A free agent at the end of the year, Bautista has undoubtedly cost himself several million in the overall value of what he hopes will be one last long-term contract before slipping off into the sunset.

Speaking with reporters before Thursday’s game, Bautista admitted that it has been tough trying to handle all the challenges this year.

“I’ve had to deal with a lot,” Bautista said. “But over all, I think I’ve contributed. I’ve always said it: You win games by scoring one more run than the other team. My on-base percentage, my RBI and runs scored per game played aren’t bad at all. So I want to finish off strong.

“And again, we’re in first place. I don’t think I’m going to focus a lot on my individual situation. If we continue to win and I’m playing every day, I’m sure I’ll contribute, and at the end of the year my numbers are going to look fine.”

Bautista will have to be content serving as the team’s designated hitter until he can show his left knee can withstand the everyday pounding in the outfield.

He said he is okay with that.

“I’m going to go by how I feel and I’ll tell him [Gibbons] how I feel,” Bautista said. “And if he chooses to DH me, that’s going to be his choice. But if I feel good enough to play defence on a daily basis, I’ll also let him know.

“But, realistically, after taking two weeks off, at least DH-ing a few times in the first few days, just to kind of ease back into it, since there wasn’t a rehab stint, it seems smart.”

With the Boston Red Sox dropping a 2-1 decision earlier Thursday to Tampa Bay, the Blue Jays went into their game against the Angels with the knowledge that they were assured of a share of first place in the American League East come Friday morning.

Bautista said that’s a pretty good feeling for a team that he believes has not hit its stride this season.

He praised the starters as being “spectacular” all year, while noting that the bullpen, after some early season jitters, seem to have things mostly in hand.

The hitting, he admitted, could be more consistent “Every team goes through games where you feel like, that one got away,” he said. “So it’s not that you’re going to win every single one but there’s been quite a few where we feel like we could have taken it from the opposition and we came up short.”

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