Adam Lind, the Toronto Blue Jays' first baseman, was asked what he takes the most pride in as a player.
Without hesitating, the cleanup hitter said: "I pride myself on hitting behind Jose Bautista and protecting the best hitter in baseball."
Bautista appreciated the compliment, but shook his head.
"That's nice of him to say," Bautista said, "but that is not his main job. It's to be the best hitter he can be. If he's doing his job, he's protecting me."
It is critical for the Jays that Lind present enough of a threat to keep Bautista from being intentionally walked or pitched around excessively. Last season, Bautista led the majors with 132 walks and led the American League with 24 intentional walks.
However, there are perhaps just two hitters in the game who could force teams to pitch to Bautista. They would be third baseman Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers and first baseman Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Babe Ruth had Lou Gehrig behind him, and Willie Mays had Willie McCovey. But it's rare to have a pair of Hall of Fame power hitters back-to-back in a lineup.
More critical than forcing pitchers to pitch to Bautista is driving him home if they walk him or he gets a hit. Bautista batted .302 in 2011 and his .4473 on-base percentage was second in the game to only Cabrera's .4477. Lind was adequate in that regard last year when he sputtered after the All-Star break and finished with a .251 average, 26 home runs and 87 runs batted in.
What's needed is the season-long production Lind provided in 2009, when he hit .305 with 35 homers and 114 RBI.
"It's a matter of me being consistent for all six months," Lind said. "How do I do that? By staying within myself and making adjustments rather than being stubborn."
In 2011 he was slowed by back problems that landed him on the disabled list for most of May, and he experienced back tightness in recent weeks. But he returned to the lineup Sunday and expects to be fine.
Lind also was adjusting to a return to first base last year. He'd been a left fielder or designated hitter ever since the Jays made him their third-round draft pick out of the University of South Alabama in 2004.
"I had been a first baseman my whole life," Lind said. "But once I turned pro, they switched me to left field and never told me why. I knew I had to put the work in from the first day of the season. I was sailing through and got it down.
"But then I wore down at the end."
Despite an inability to match the production of 2009 in the last two seasons, Lind still tied for eighth in the league with 84 homers over the past three years. He has that power swing required of a cleanup hitter.
"Adam has a nice, smooth swing and a really nice, left-handed stroke," Bautista said. "I've become an admirer of his swing."
Tigers infielder Brandon Inge said Lind is good protection for Bautista.
"He's a hell of a hitter," Inge said of Lind. "If Bautista keeps on his pace, with nobody behind him, he would not get anything to hit. And I think Lind is capable of another year like he had a couple of years ago."
This could be a telling season for Lind. Can he hold on to the cleanup spot as young sluggers such as Brett Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia and Eric Thames improve?
Getting back to the 100-RBI level would be one way to get cemented into the fourth spot. Is that a goal Lind sets for himself?
"Not a lot get there," Lind said. "Ninety RBI is pretty productive. Getting 20 homers and 80 RBI was my goal starting out. Now, I think 20 and 90."
Seventeen batters reached 100 RBI last year in the majors, and Bautista paced the Jays with 103.
Lind and Bautista combined to drive in 190 runs last year and 196 in 2010. Bautista has supplied the majority of those RBI the past two seasons. But if Lind can approach 100 RBI in 2012, Toronto will know it has a one-two punch that's a keeper.
Special to The Globe and Mail