As we sat in the ballpark on Friday night, watching José Bautista step to the plate in the fourth inning with the bases loaded, we became acutely aware of a completely new feeling.: That JoBau has become a feared man at that plate for the Jays.
Maybe you can discount this, and maybe you need way more evidence and two more seasons of similar performances before you start to think of him as any sort of premium offensive performer. But for us, there was a palpable feeling in the air that night as Bautista strode from the on deck circle: It was the feeling of anticipation, because our best hitter was standing in for a key situation, and it was a sense that Bautista is the one player in the lineup who the other team does not want to see with men on base.
It's a feeling that we would have a few years ago, when Manny Ramirez or Alex Rodriguez or Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds would step in. Their at bats would simultaneously create expectations and anxiety, and you'd feel a sense of relief when you got through them unscathed.
(Okay: Hold up. Slow down. Take a moment and go with us here. We know that you can't wait to get into the comments, and tear us a new one over the ridiculously overstatement that you see in that paragraph, but we're using it to make a point. We could say: "This must be what it felt like Dante Bichette came to the plate", but we're trying to sketch something out quickly, and don't especially feel like digging to far down to find the precise comparable that is going to suit your needs. Stop being so picky.)
It's odd that this feels so novel, but the truth is that the Jays have not had the Jim Rice Feared Hitter in the middle of their order since Carlos Delgado left six years ago. There have been players who have had good seasons here or there, and we might have wanted to feel as if they were those terror-inducing offensive threats, but they never quite became that thing. But after nearly four months (plus a month last season) of being the most prolific power hitter in the Majors, it certainly feels to us as though Batista has affirmed that deserves to be treated with respect.
And as we were in that moment on Friday night, and wondering whether if any of this notion made a lick of sense, Bautista hammered a Justin Masterson pitch 424 feet into the left field seats, reaffirming every last absurd bit of that line of thinking.
...and other new, weird feelings and modest goals
It was disappointing to see the Jays cough up the last two games of the Cleveland series, especially given that both of them were eminently winnable games. But if it is any consolation, there is something in the manner that the Jays are playing through the last half of their schedule which we can't remember seeing in recent years.
Rationally, we'd have to assume that the Jays are more or less out of contention for the post season, but the Jays doesn't seem to be relenting or slowing down at all in recent weeks. If anything, the roster that they have assembled at this point seems as though it is the strongest team that they've put on the field in years, and that with the bench strength and bullpen depth, they might have enough to actually make a run at contention as soon as next year.
In the interim, we've mentally set a goal for the Jays for the remainder of the season: Fifth in the AL.
Sure, it sounds like not much, but we'd actually get some satisfaction out of seeing the Jays finish the season as the best team not the make the playoffs. It would likely mean catching up with Boston, who sit five games ahead of them in the standings, but with three series still to come against the Sox, that's a manageable number.
It might not seem like much of an aspiration, but legitimately leapfrogging the Red Sox and jumping into that fifth seed is one important step that could precede the next one: a postseason berth.