With one sweet swing, Edwin Encarnacion showed the Toronto Blue Jays what they hope to be getting back soon.
After missing more than a month with a strained right quadriceps muscle, Encarnacion is close to rejoining the Blue Jays in the middle of their playoff chase. Now on a minor-league rehab stint with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons, Encarnacion is one step away, and on Tuesday night he showed evidence of his progress by hitting a first-pitch, no-doubt grand slam.
Encarnacion, who led off as the designated hitter, went 1-for-4 with the grand slam, a fly out, a pop up and a ground out. He reported no problems after the Bisons' 7-5 victory.
"It's a lot of fun to be playing and have a game like today," Encarnacion said. "I feel great with my leg, that's the main thing right now. It feels great: no problems swinging, no problems running."
With the bases loaded in the second inning Encarnacion made short work of a first-pitch slider from Norfolk Tides starter Steve Johnson, showing the right-handed power stroke the Blue Jays could desperately use by smacking the ball over the fence in left.
"I was just looking for something in the strike zone and make a good swing on it," Encarnacion said. "He handed me the slider and I made a good swing on it."
The plan is for Encarnacion to play two more games with the Bisons before meeting up with the Blue Jays on Friday in Chicago. Despite missing the past month, the 31-year-old still leads the team in home runs (26) and trails only Jose Bautista in runs batted in (70).
After suffering a recent setback that delayed his return to the injury-ravaged Blue Jays, the main objective during the final step of Encarnacion's rehab is to get him to the majors in one piece.
"I don't know if he's quite there where he wants to be with his leg there. But we'll play that by ear," manager Gary Allenson said before the game. "Keeping him healthy through the next couple days is important."
When Encarnacion was injured in Oakland on July 5, the Blue Jays were half-game back of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East. Going into Tuesday night's game at the Seattle Mariners they were six back, making the second wild-card spot their most realistic shot of reaching the playoffs.
Encarnacion has watched every game since going on the disabled list and been in communication with his teammates.
"I've been talking to every guy," he said. "They want to see me there soon."
Recently, the Blue Jays have had to try to stay afloat without Encarnacion, first baseman Adam Lind and third baseman Brett Lawrie. Lind (fractured right foot) was activated in time to bat cleanup against the Mariners on Tuesday, while Lawrie (straight left oblique) is out until at least September.
Toronto manager John Gibbons said last week his hope was to have Encarnacion and Lind split first-base and designated-hitting duties when they returned, which would allow Juan Francisco and Danny Valencia to platoon at third. Encarnacion wants to be back sooner rather than later, but not at the expense of quality hitting.
"I just try to be available to play not 100 per cent but close to help my team win games," he said. "I don't want to go there and play only 50 or 60 per cent because I [wouldn't] help my team. I want to make sure that I'll be 100 per cent and be healthy to help my team."
Although Allenson joked that the slugger might not be the ideal lead-off hitter, Encarnacion was there to maximize his at-bats. He's expected to play first base Wednesday night, with Thursday afternoon's game plan still up in the air.
No matter the plan, outfielder Kevin Pillar, who appeared in 26 games for the Blue Jays this season, doesn't think it hurts to have Encarnacion in Buffalo's lineup for a little while.
"It's always nice having guys like Eddie come down and if you can just pick his brain for a day or two and just get a chance to watch him hit, I'm pretty sure he's not going to miss a beat," Pillar said. "Watching a guy like him come into spring training without maybe a whole lot of live pitching and hit the way he does, it'll just be fun for us and fun for the people of Buffalo to get a chance to see him play."
Knowing he's in charge of a major asset for the parent club, Allenson said a decision to send Encarnacion home from third might be a little more conservative than with other players. Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said "explosive movements" while running were the biggest concern for Encarnacion.
"I think that's what he might need to protect," Anthopoulos said last week. "If he's hitting a chopper down the third-base line and he's really trying to sprint down the line or he's trying to stretch an extra-base hit and things like that."
Perhaps even more telling than the grand slam was Encarnacion's grounder that made him test his quadriceps running down the first base line.
"I feel good," he said. "I feel great and I think everything's going to be all right."
Steps away from being back with the Blue Jays, Encarnacion won't be expected to push himself too hard the rest of this week as he inches back.
"If he just goes up when he gets done here, goes up and DHs, that's a big bat to have in the lineup," Allenson said. "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."