Bautista's big spring an encouraging sign for Blue Jays

TORONTO (AP) While it's generally unwise to put much stock in spring training statistics, Jose Bautista is giving the Toronto Blue Jays reason to believe he's back to being the slugger they remember.

And that could be huge boost to a team that's reached the AL Championship Series the last two years and is looking to go farther.

Last spring, the biggest numbers Bautista put up were salary demands for his looming free agency, but that payday never materialized after he endured a season-long slump. Limited to 116 games by foot and knee injuries, Bautista hit .234 with 22 homers and 69 RBIs, missing the All-Star Game for the first time in seven years.

With teammate and fellow slugger Edwin Encarnacion viewed as Toronto's preferred offseason target, few expected Bautista to be back with the Blue Jays. But after Encarnacion ended up in Cleveland, Bautista signed a one-year, $18 million contract to remain in Toronto.

Healthy again and determined to prove his doubters wrong, Bautista crushed opposing pitching in early Grapefruit League action, batting .556 (10 for 18) with two homers and seven RBIs over his first seven games.

''He's on a mission,'' manager John Gibbons said. ''He always is, but he's definitely on a mission now.''

Lest that production be maligned for coming in meaningless exhibitions, the former major league home run champ also pounded the ball at the World Baseball Classic, batting .333 (6 for 18) with one homer and five RBIs in five games for the Dominican Republic. The 36-year-old outfielder also showed off his once-feared arm, diminished by shoulder pain since April 2015, by making a game-saving throw against Colombia, throwing out a runner at the plate.

Seeking a third straight postseason appearance on the heels of consecutive ALCS defeats, the Blue Jays will be counting on Bautista more than ever now that Encarnacion has joined the defending league champions.

Still, Joey Bats won't have to shoulder the load alone. Newcomer Kendrys Morales, who hit 30 home runs for Kansas City last year, expects his slugging totals to increase at hitter-friendly Rogers Centre, much as Josh Donaldson's did in 2015, his first season north of the border, when he was named AL MVP.

''We're comfortable with the group that we have,'' Bautista said after returning from the WBC. ''We just have to stay healthy, play hard and play together. Hopefully this season gets a little deeper into the playoffs than we have the last two.''

Here are some other things to watch with the Blue Jays this season:

BURNING TO BEAT BALTIMORE: If there's one team Bautista will be motivated to face this year, it's division rival Baltimore. On multiple occasions this offseason, Orioles GM Dan Duquette said he chose not to pursue Bautista in free agency because Baltimore fans didn't like the slugger, famous for his bat flip in the 2015 AL Division Series. Bautista, who has previously feuded with Baltimore reliever Darren O'Day, has 28 career home runs against the Orioles. Bautista homered against them last October in an 11-inning win in the AL wild-card game.

NEW LOOK: Encarnacion was one of several Blue Jays to depart over the winter. Toronto also lost left-hander Brett Cecil to St. Louis, right-hander R.A. Dickey to Atlanta, right-hander Scott Feldman to Cincinnati, and right-hander Joaquin Benoit and outfielder Michael Saunders to Philadelphia. Besides Morales, the Blue Jays signed 1B/OF Steve Pearce, left-hander J.P. Howell, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and right-hander Joe Smith.

KEEPING TRAVIS HEALTHY: Second baseman and leadoff batter Devon Travis has missed time in each of the past two seasons with left shoulder and right knee injuries, respectively. Travis didn't play again after Game 1 of the ALCS last season, eventually undergoing knee surgery. He's had a slow start this spring, and may yet start on the disabled list. ''We've got to be smart,'' Gibbons said. ''If it costs us a couple extra weeks, so be it.''

GIBBY'S GUIDING HAND: President Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins inherited Gibbons when they took over following the 2015 season, leading to speculation that any stumble would cost the fifth-year manager his job. Instead, Gibbons has developed a strong bond with his new bosses, and is set to get a new contract through 2019, plus a club option for 2020. ''It's always a nice reward,''�said Gibbons, whose previous deal was set to expire at the end of 2017. ''I'm pretty happy, pretty excited.''

ROOKIES TO WATCH: With first baseman Justin Smoak considered one of the weaker links in Toronto's lineup, fans will be following how Rowdy Tellez performs at Triple-A. Tellez, 22, hit .297 with 23 home runs, 29 doubles, and 81 RBIs at Double-A New Hampshire last season.

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AP freelance writer Mark Didtler contributed to this report.

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