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Toronto Blue Jays' Jose Bautista runs the bases on his three run home run against the New York Yankees during the eighth inning of MLB baseball action in Toronto, Saturday September 24, 2016 (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Blue Jays' Jose Bautista runs the bases on his three run home run against the New York Yankees during the eighth inning of MLB baseball action in Toronto, Saturday September 24, 2016 (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

baseball

Kelly: Is this the return of the old Jose Bautista? Add to ...

After the completion of the 95 per cent of the baseball season, we are finally beginning to see the familiar Jose Bautista.

Not the hitter. The talker.

When at his best on the field, Bautista becomes a compulsively contrary combatant of the English language off it.

He makes no distinction between criticisms, common-sense observations or compliments. They’ll all get swatted back at you.

Bautista won the game for the Blue Jays on Saturday with a three-run homer in the eighth – the only runs in a 3-0 Toronto victory.

Is this the return of the old Jose?

“I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment,” Bautista said.

Okay.

“But I have been having more success lately.”

This is Bautista par excellence – ‘You’re wrong. Now let me tell you why you’re kind of right.’ After the game, manager John Gibbons said he’d called it by turning to bench coach DeMarlo Hale as Bautista went up to bat and saying, “Right guy, right time.”

You wouldn’t have said that a month ago. Or two months. Or any month of the 2016 season that didn’t start last week.

When he’s not hurt (and he’s hurt an awful lot), Bautista has gotten his numbers. But until the last few days, he has felt like a peripheral figure on what used to be his team.

“He’s the guy,” starter Marcus Stroman said after the game. “He’s been the guy here for a long time and we count on him to be big in those spots.”

It’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s only half-true.

These Jays are, in order, Josh Donaldson’s team, Edwin Encarnacion’s team, Russell Martin’s team and Troy Tulowitzki’s team long before they are Bautista’s team. That’s what happens when aging stars who led entirely by on-field example lose a step.

As his on-field presence diminished, so did his clubhouse dominance. Bautista’s swagger dimmed. Rather than playfully insufferable, he became simply brittle. He didn’t want to talk because he knew what you wanted to talk about – either his decline or free agency or how his decline was going to cost him a lot of money in free agency.

He came back to life in Seattle after hitting a ninth-inning, game-tying home run.

There was a minor key flip of the bat. He began trotting backward as he watched the ball go over the wall. For a guy sitting on 19 home runs at that point in the season – fifth highest on his own team – the Babe Ruth act was a bit much.

But a large part of the reason Toronto loves Bautista so much is knowing that everyone else despises him. There is no local baseball comparison to the place he occupies in this city’s imagination. He’s our contemporary Tiger Williams.

After he’d won Saturday’s game, Bautista was pulled from it. He spent the last half-inning staring out of the dugout with the look of a man who knows he’s on camera. Total concentration, a thousand-yard stare, ramrod straight on the bench. I’ll bet he hasn’t felt that way in a while.

It has become his pattern to shower like he’s trying to shed several layers of skin post-game, in order to avoid talking to the press. Based on the wait times – 40 to 45 minutes – Jose Bautista must be the cleanest man alive.

On Saturday, he was out after seven minutes. Everyone laughed as he appeared. And, for a change, Bautista laughed, too. He was enjoying his little joke.

He’d hit Saturday’s long ball with teammate Kevin Pillar’s bat. TV cameras caught Pillar’s signature etched into the shaft.

That’s a ready-made story (/sports journo fist pump.)

Jose, is there a story behind using Kevin Pillar’s bat?

“No. Just switching it up,” Bautista shrugged.

Oh.

“From time to time, we tend to do that.”

Oh.

“It’s not necessarily something that has to do with being superstitious.”

Oh.

“I used it once in Seattle, a couple of times yesterday and a couple of times today.”

Wait, wait. Did you hit the home run with it in Seattle?! “No.”

Oh.

Bautista was having fun now – hands clasped behind his back, looking around expectantly for the next reasonable question that could be answered like some variation of ‘How long have you been a black quarterback?’ Is there an explanation for your recent success?

“Yeah,” Bautista said, allowing a small pause. “It’s baseball.”

But maybe something physical?

“That’s always part of it. I don’t want to make it an excuse,” Bautista said. “Do I feel better physically? Yes. Has it helped? Probably.”

At which point, I would like to point out that a) that’s an excuse, and b) I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment.

Regardless of how or why, this is the Bautista Toronto had hoped to see this year – timely and irascible, a daily focal point of interest, the sort of player a lot of people want to punch. But mostly other professional baseball players.

He’s left it too late to secure the nine-figure contract he dreamed of in spring. But if the goal is turning Toronto from a dark-horse into a playoff team to be feared, Bautista’s arrival is right on cue.

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