When the Toronto Blue Jays re-signed Justin Smoak a couple of years ago, reactions varied between indifference and open mockery.
Smoak didn't help matters by making it sound as though he'd hit a lottery number rather than won something on his merits.
"I know I can be a better player," the Jays' occasional first baseman said at the time. "I want to play every day … but if that's not the case, that's not the case."
"The bench is real comfy" is not the sort of will-to-power talk you want to hear from anyone working at a pro franchise. And yet, right now, with all the higher-priced outfield talent in some stage of injury- or age-related decline, Smoak is the franchise.
On the basis of one year plus a very little bit, he is becoming Toronto's next-gen Jose Bautista – an anonymous drone who goes into a phone booth around his 30th birthday and comes out in a cape disguised as Hank Aaron.
The Blue Jays came from behind twice over the weekend to split their opening four-game series with the Yankees. They won 7-4 on Sunday.
It doesn't sound like much – and it wouldn't be in June or July – but this was a massive save.
If the Jays had lost four here, they'd need to hire a fire warden to oversee the orderly emptying of the bandwagon. Given how quickly things went wrong last year, this team could not afford another 0-for-whatever start.
Josh Donaldson and his wonky shoulder didn't contribute much in that regard. Troy Tulowitzki can't because he's getting prepped for surgery. It's starting to feel like a small, personal victory every time Russell Martin gets a hit, never mind a meaningful one. That's US$63-million worth of capital expenditure that is, right in this precise moment, dead money.
The starting pitching we'd all talked so much about was a little wobbly. Aaron Sanchez got knocked around on Friday. Based on Sunday's pilot of The Stroshow, it will need small rewrites as we get further into Season 4.
So it was left to Smoak, a tiny line item on the salary roll, to do the lifting.
He had six hits over two games, with two home runs and eight RBIs. He currently represents more than 50 per cent of the Jays' total offensive output this season.
His final at-bat of the series against Yankees' David Robertson was a minor-note master class. To hear Robertson – one of the most cunning relievers in baseball – tell it, he ran out of ideas after eight pitches. Smoak put the ninth one over the centre-field wall. It was a grand slam and the game winner.
When someone asked Smoak if he was thinking curveball on that ninth pitch, he said, "Maybe. Maybe not. I'm just glad I was thinking the way I was thinking."
Which is not actually an answer.
Smoak is a throwback in a lot of ways, but none so pleasing as the fact that, unlike many of his colleagues, he isn't demystifying the game. He's mystifying it.
His manager, John Gibbons, called him "a late bloomer" afterward, signalling that we're passing the point where we think of Smoak's transformation from schlub to all-star as a one-year anomaly. He's arrived.
Bautista was 29-and-a-half when he began the 2009 season – the one that turned him from a nobody to a somebody. The year after that was the best of his career. He continued to produce at an elite level for journeyman prices for four more years.
Smoak was 30-and-a-bit when he had his own modest version of a 2009. Last year, he doubled or tripled everything in his output – hits, extra-base hits, home runs, walks.
Smoak's emergence wasn't as loud as Bautista's. The South Carolinian is, at the moment, a very good everyday player rather than what Bautista became – a generational star. But every bit helps.
If you'd like to compare Smoak to Bautista on some basis other than vintages, you're going to have problems. It would be hard for two ballplayers to be more different from one another. Bautista was (it feels odd using the past tense) a huge personality. Not loud, but smouldering. He was fuelled almost entirely by resentment. Though he pretended otherwise, Bautista loved being the centre of attention or, put more precisely, the centre of animus.
Smoak has a personality, but he prefers not to take it out of the house in case it gets wet. He has never seemed to care much about where he plays, or when, or how long. He just likes being on a baseball team.
Smoak has never attracted any attention of any sort, which may be why he's making US$4-million a year when someone such as Steve Pearce – Pearce being the old English word for "healthy scratch" – is making six.
Given the chance, Bautista would make chippy comments about how much he'd signed for and how much he thought he was worth. No one's asked Smoak that question because you already know he's not going to give you what you're hoping for. It'll be some version of 'just happy to be here'.
After hitting Sunday's homer, Smoak did not dance around or give people flying chest bumps. The closest he got to an emotional reaction was a look of mild irritation when he realized they'd showed him on the scoreboard jamming a plug of chewing tobacco into his mouth.
After the game, starter Marcus Stroman – who has much better understanding of what all the buttons on the hype machine do – described Smoak's nine-pitch encounter in breathless terms.
"It's hard to put into words how incredible that at-bat is," Stroman said, and then did that.
Smoak had almost nothing to say for himself. He could not be roused beyond a monotone on the topic of the at-bat itself, or the home run, or the win. He refused to be riled by the fact that, in order to get to him, Robertson had intentionally walked Josh Donaldson.
The only thing that seemed to penetrate was being told he is six-for-his-last-eight.
"Thanks for that," Smoak said, like he'd just been cursed.
Not much a talker, this guy. When you hit like he's hitting, other people will do that for you.
The Canadian Press