It was one prodigious swing on one foreboding Buffalo summer night. The Toronto Blue Jays sure hope it’s a sign the balance of power might shift back their way in the American League East.
When the calendar hit July, the case could easily be made that Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion was the leader in the race for the AL’s most valuable player award. Not Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, Nelson Cruz or anyone else you might offer now.
But Encarnacion landed in a heap running to first base July 5 in Oakland and pretty much hasn’t been seen since.
He arrived in Buffalo on rehab Tuesday, hoping to make sure his strained quad is up to snuff, and popped to left field leading off the first inning. The order turned around quickly and there was Encarnacion batting again in the second with the bases loaded.
First-pitch slider from Norfolk’s Steve Johnson. A crack of the bat on ball befitting all the thunder and lightning that enveloped Coca-Cola Field about three hours earlier. A grand slam that was the Bisons’ first in two years – and one that might have even been heard all the way in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse in Seattle.
“It’s a lot of fun to be playing and have a game like today,” Encarnacion said in a packed postgame interview room after the Bisons’ 7-5 win, their 18th in the last 23 games. “I feel great with my leg. That’s the main thing right now. I feel great. No problems swinging, no problems running. That makes me feel happy right now.”
When big leaguers hit home runs, they just sound different. This was a no-doubter, soaring about 390 feet over the old configuration of the left-field fence – just to the left of Jeff Manto’s retired number.
“I’m just looking for something in the strike zone and to make a good swing on it,” Encarnacion said. “He hung me the slider and I made a good swing.”
Pretty strange confluence of events. Manto, the greatest slugger in Buffalo’s modern era, was in the Norfolk dugout in his role as Baltimore’s minor-league hitting instructor. He’s also here because he’s going to be inducted into the International League Hall of Fame prior to tonight’s game.
Manto put more than a few balls in that spot when he played here from 1997-2000. Most players need a few at-bats on rehab before they get comfortable enough to do that. Not Encarnacion.
“That’s probably a first for me,” said Buffalo manager Gary Allenson. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, the 9th year in Triple-A, and I haven’t had a lot of success with the major league rehab guys. Edwin is obviously the exception.”
The brutal pregame storm kept the crowd down to about 2,000 and they cheered heartily when Encarnacion was introduced prior to his first at-bat. They roared as he rounded the bases after his bomb, with his right elbow extended and not moving in his trademark home run celebration.
They say in Toronto he’s carrying the parrot. Or Ed-Winging. And the fans in Rogers Centre love the sight.
Tweeted Bisons General Manager Mike Buczkowski: “The Ed-Wing has been renamed the Buffalo-Wing...at least for tonight.”
In reality, he’s carrying the Blue Jays’ postseason hopes. The party line is that the return of Encarnacion and Adam Lind, who got back into the lineup Tuesday night, essentially amounts to trades for two big bats that can better protect Jose Bautista.
We’ll see. The Orioles are a little wobbly all of a sudden if Manny Machado is down for any length of time after that bizarre-looking crumpled leg that developed during a swing Monday against the Yankees. And who believes in the Yankees with their paucity of pitching?
Encarnacion went 1 for 4 in the game and was able to run decently on a chopper to second in the seventh. He barely missed another hanging slider in the fourth, popping to third.
“A little frustrating for me. That’s where I don’t want to be, out from the team for five weeks,” said Encarnacion, who noted he’s been in regular contact with his teammates. “Now I’m working to getting back on track. Feel great and ready to go.”
The plan is for Encarnacion to play first base tonight and again bat leadoff. He’ll likely DH here Thursday afternoon. And if all goes well, he’ll be off to rejoin the Blue Jays in Chicago on Friday night.
“More than anything for Edwin, as long as he gets his timing down, sees some pitches and gets comfortable where he gets it going again, it will be just fine,” Allenson said. “It’s a pretty big bat. ... It’s obviously a bat that they can’t wait to get back in the lineup there. Sometimes that doesn’t always translate to a minor-league rehab.”
And sometimes it does. If all goes well in the next couple of days, we’ll start to see what the return of that bat means to the AL East race.