Jose Bautista's magical season reached greater heights Thursday afternoon when the Toronto Blue Jays right-fielder belted his 50th home run, a game-winning solo shot off Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez in the first inning of a 1-0 win.
Bautista, who was hitless in seven previous career at-bats against the American League Cy Young Award contender, lifted a 2-1 fastball over the left-field fence into the Blue Jays bullpen to become the 26th major-leaguer to hit 50 home runs in a season.
"It wasn't the best swing but I hit it on the barrel and good enough for it to go out," said Bautista. "It was a great feeling to know I got it over with, I know a lot of people were waiting for it, probably more than me. I'm just really happy and proud that I accomplished it."
When he reached the Toronto dugout, Bautista was greeted by a sea of high-fives from his teammates before stepping back on the field for a curtain call in front of his parents, Sandra and Luis Americo, and 12,588 other fans at Rogers Centre.
Jose Bautista may have hit his 50th home run of the season on Thursday against the Mariners, but Seattle isn't the team he has victimized the most with the long ball:
- Red Sox — 8HR in 66 at-bats
- Orioles — 7HR in 58 at-bats
- Yankees — 6HR in 50 at-bats
- Indians — 4HR in 35 at-bats
- Rangers — 4HR in 36 at-bats
Bautista also grounded out and walked, finishing the day 1-for-2 against Hernandez, who took the loss to fall to 12-12 on the season despite starting the day with an American League-leading 2.35 earned-run average and 222 strikeouts.
Bautista is the first major-leaguer to hit 50 homers in a season since 2007, when the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez hit 54 and the Milwaukee Brewers' Prince Fielder swatted 50.
The 29-year-old is only the seventh right-handed hitter to have a 50-homer season, joining Jimmie Foxx (who did it twice), Mark McGwire, Albert Belle, Cecil Fielder, Hank Greenberg and Rodriguez, who achieved the feat three times. It's the 42nd time overall the milestone has been reached.
Thursday's historic home run, just the 17th allowed by Hernandez in 234 1/3 innings pitched this season, also gave Bautista 115 runs batted in for the year. His previous single-season high in homers and RBIs was 16 and 63, respectively.
"I think the big key with Bautista, and I've said this day in and day out, he's coachable," said Gaston. "Any time you're coachable, you have a chance to improve and get better."
Bautista has 37 more home runs than he did last season, the second-largest year-over-year increase in baseball history, according to Stats Inc.
Davey Johnson upped his total by 38 from 1972 to 1973, going from five to 43.
Bautista's jump in home runs from 13 in 336 at-bats a year ago to 50 in 532 at-bats this season has sparked talk of possible steroid use, which baseball tests for.
"Absolutely not," he replied Thursday when asked if he had ever used them. "I (understand the suspicions), because of what happened in the past. Those days are gone. …
"I just have to deal with it and I have all season long. I'm not going to back down from any questions, I have nothing to hide, so I'm not worried."
Bautista's explanations for the 2010 binge? How about starting his hands quicker at the plate, playing regularly in a homer-friendly ballpark and receiving encouragement from a homer-happy manager in Cito Gaston?
Former Blue Jays hitting coach Gene Tenace, along with first base coach/current hitting instructor Dwayne Murphy and Gaston first suggested last season that Bautista change his approach at the plate.
The player reports a repositioning of his hands to initiate his swing earlier has cut one to one-and-a-half seconds off the time he starts and finishes his swing.
Bautista is also thinking the game better than ever before.
"Being ready on time has allowed me to see the ball better, I've laid off some bad pitches which has led to some hitting counts," he said. "I'm not Barry Bonds, they're not going to walk me every time I go up to the plate, they're going to try to challenge me.
"I've gotten myself in position to succeed and I've taken advantage."
Last week at Boston, Bautista set the Toronto franchise mark with his 48th dinger to best George Bell, who hit 47 home runs in 1987. His memorable season includes seven multi-home run games, 23 solo shots, 20 two-run blasts, six three-run drives and one grand slam.
Bautista's 26 homers in the second half this season are also the most in Blue Jays history and the tops by any player in the majors since Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena and Philadelphia's Ryan Howard hit 26 after the break in 2007.
"I came to this organization in a critical point of my career, I needed another chance and I found it here," said Bautista, who was acquired from Pittsburgh in August 2008 for catcher Robinson Diaz. "Maybe not right away, but eventually. Ever since I got here, they told me that they believe in my ability and I believed in myself as well.
"That, and the changes I made in the approach and the swing ultimately led to the success."