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Toronto Blue Jays Vernon Wells (R) talks to team manager Cito Gaston around the batting cage at the team's MLB baseball spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida February 24, 2010. It was veteran Wells' first day at training camp. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill (FRED THORNHILL)
Toronto Blue Jays Vernon Wells (R) talks to team manager Cito Gaston around the batting cage at the team's MLB baseball spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida February 24, 2010. It was veteran Wells' first day at training camp. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill (FRED THORNHILL)

Jays leadership role to Wells Add to ...

Vernon Wells broke one of baseball's cardinal rules yesterday - never turn your back to the batter during batting practice - and Travis Snider made him pay.

The Toronto Blue Jays centre fielder was near first base, walking out to join teammates shagging fly balls, when Snider, who had just replaced Wells at the plate, pulled a line drive down the right side of the diamond.

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The ball one-hopped, before striking Wells square in the backside.

Apart from a bruised ego, he appeared no more worse the wear for the incident. But it was a fine how-do-you-do for Wells in his first appearance at the team's spring training camp in preparation for the upcoming 2010 season.

Perhaps it will serve as a not-so-subtle wake-up call for the 31-year-old, whose performance the last three seasons has slipped drastically after the American League team made him one of the game's highest-paid players.

With ace Roy Halladay having been dispatched to the Philadelphia Phillies, the rebuilding Blue Jays will now, more than ever, be leaning heavily on Wells's leadership to help navigate them through the anticipated tough times ahead.

He believes he is up to the challenge - both mentally and physically.

"It's one of the first times I've felt like this is my team," Wells said during an interview yesterday.

"I'm looking forward to it."

Toronto manager Cito Gaston said if the Blue Jays are going to achieve any success this season, a lot of it will hinge on the performance of Wells.

"We're going to need him to certainly step up," Gaston said.

The last three years have not been kind to Wells, until recently regarded as one of the top all-around centre fielders in the game.

He was a first-time all-star in 2003, when he slugged 33 home runs, drove in 117 runs and hit .317.

The next three years, he was a Gold Glove winner for his defensive prowess in centre field. In 2006, he became an all-star for the second time en route to a .303-32-106 season.

After which, certain of his superstar status, the Blue Jays signed Wells to a seven-year, $126-million (U.S.) contract extension that even today remains among the richest in baseball.

Wells has since failed to live up to the expectations of the mega-salary, his progress no doubt slowed by repeated injuries.

Last year, in which he batted .260 with just 15 homers, his lowest total since becoming a regular in 2002, Wells played through an injured left wrist that required off-season surgery. He refuses to use it as an excuse.

"Everybody plays through different things," he said.

"I'd rather be on the field and try to do what I can as much as possible no matter what injury you have.

"Obviously, it's frustrating from an outsider's point of view and it's frustrating from my standpoint because I want to be better than I was. You just use it as fuel to get better."

Wells said the wrist feels fine and the surgery might have actually been a blessing, as it forced him to tone down his off-season workout regimen which might keep him fresher as the season progresses.

He said it is kind of a strange feeling coming to camp with the realization that he is now the primary veteran presence.

"Things change in a hurry," Wells said. "I remember being here and Carlos [Delgado]and those guys being here and I was a young guy trying to make a ballclub and, now, it's completely changed.

"It's a fun role to be in because guys look at you to do the right thing and how to do things and how to be successful at this level. It's a learning process and it's going to be fun going through it with these guys."

Gaston appears set to have Wells bat cleanup this coming year, which is fine with Wells, who claims to like the spotlight even when he's struggling.

"I want to be there," he said. "I want to get back to doing what I'm accustomed to doing and that's helping this team win and driving in runs.

"Obviously, Cito knows if I'm where I need to be I'm going to help this team win games."

 

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