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Brandon Drury showing he belongs in Blue Jays’ future plans

Sportsnet logo Sportsnet 2019-08-13 Arden Zwelling
a group of baseball players standing on top of a field: MLB-BlueJays-fisher-celebrates © Fred Thornhill/CP MLB-BlueJays-fisher-celebrates

TORONTO — Back on Canada Day, a full 64 games and 244 plate appearances into his 2019 season, Toronto Blue Jays infielder Brandon Drury had a .602 OPS. He was batting .207/.254/.348 with 19 extra-base hits. He was in and out of Charlie Montoyo’s lineups, seldom playing on back-to-back days and sometimes riding the bench for two consecutive games.

But as Canadian summer unofficially began, something clicked. And over 27 games since July 3, Drury’s OPS is .929. He’s batting .301/.327/.602 with 12 extra-base hits. He’s brought a strikeout rate that was once well over 30 per cent all the way down to 26. He’s playing so well that Montoyo is hesitating to sit him for one day, let alone two.

“He’s got the tools to be a really good big-league hitter,” Montoyo said. “He deserved [playing time] because he was playing great defence the whole time and I knew that hitting was going to come. And he’s doing it now.”

On Monday the club’s general manager, Ross Atkins, even cited Drury as one of the intended beneficiaries of the club’s decision to waive infielder Freddy Galvis, which will open up more opportunity for the soon-to-be 27-year-old. And Drury was quick to reward his manager and GM for their faith, going 2-for-5 Monday with his first career grand slam in a 19-3 Blue Jays molly-whopping of the Texas Rangers.

“I’m just getting into a good position to hit, getting there early, and trying to really slow it down when I’m in the box,” Drury said. “It’s not too mechanical. It’s more of an approach, I would say, of what I’m trying to do. Sometimes I try to do too much and I rush. And then sometimes I’m trying to just get hits and then I’m not being aggressive enough. So, I think it’s just a happy medium of being in a good position to hit and getting good pitches to hit.”

With Vladimir Guerrero Jr. testing the upper limits of exit velocity, Bo Bichette laying siege to MLB record books, and Cavan Biggio somehow improving on his 15 per cent minor-league walk rate over his first 64 major-league games, it’s easy for a guy like Drury to get lost in the shuffle. But, quietly, he’s been one of the team’s four best hitters since the beginning of July, and one of the three best if you exclude Bichette, who’s played only 15 games.

Of course, Bichette ought not be excluded, small sample be damned. He isn’t just one of Toronto’s hottest hitters, he’s one of baseball’s. With four more knocks Monday, Bichette now has 26 in his first 15 career games, obliterating the previous franchise record of 20 held by Aaron Hill and Devon Travis. His two doubles Monday gave him 15 extra-base hits, an MLB record in a player’s first 15 games. No player in the league has more hits than Bichette since he made his debut two weeks ago.

“This guy,” said Justin Smoak, “he just falls out of bed and hits.”

Drury and Bichette talk hitting often. What approach they’re looking to bring into that night’s game, what they see on video from the opposition starter, how they’ve been feeling in the box. Bichette talks a lot about trusting himself at the plate, staying focused on what allows him to be successful, and trying not to do too much. It sounds a lot like how Drury’s explained his recent hot play.

“We’re both guys that try to use the middle of the field, right-centre, left-centre. So, I think we can relate to approach-type talk and try to attack the pitcher that day with the same game plan,” Drury said. “What he’s doing is special. He’s making the game look easy. And it’s not an easy game. That’s what’s so impressive about it. It’s exciting to have a guy like that in the lineup for us every day.”

So, while Bichette and the kids have vacuumed up all the attention, Drury’s been quietly plugging away, putting up a nine-game hit streak over which he’s gone 12-for-35. The contributions of Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk have been overlooked, too. Hernandez came into Monday night with a .994 OPS over his last 31 games, including 11 home runs. And Grichuk entered with nine extra-base hits over his last 15 games before hitting his 21st home run of the season in the third inning and adding his 20th double in the fourth as part of a three-hit night.

That trio is a big reason why the Blue Jays entered Monday with a top-five MLB offence since June 16 in home runs (99), extra-base hits (193), and slugging percentage (.480), and a top-eight offence in terms of runs (274), walks (170), and OPS (.802). And that was before Toronto hitters put up three tries and two conversions — fewer than six weeks until the Rugby World Cup, after all — against Texas’s overwhelmed pitching.

“These guys can hit, man,” said Smoak, who went 3-for-5 himself with a homer and two doubles. “I said this in spring training and continued to say it even when we were bad — as a team, I feel like we’re always going to be able to hit. And over the past month or so we’ve definitely been able to do that. And I feel like we have the right guys here who are capable of doing some crazy things.”

For as much as Toronto’s offensive surge has been led by the play of rookies like Guerrero, Biggio, Bichette, and Danny Jansen, who had three hits Monday including his 11th home run, Toronto’s veterans — relatively speaking, of course, on MLB’s second-youngest team — have been just as impactful. And for good reason. With so many young position players making their way up Toronto’s system, the competition for future jobs is becoming exceedingly stiff.

That’s how the 29-year-old Galvis ended up on waivers, jettisoned to free up plate appearances for younger players and to do a solid for a well-respected veteran who deserves the opportunity to play every day. And players like Drury and Hernandez had to be feeling some of that pressure from beneath as well when they were struggling to find an offensive rhythm earlier this season.

It got so bad for Hernandez that he was demoted to triple-A Buffalo for a couple weeks to rework his swing. And although his play is now much more representative of his potential, that pressure to perform isn’t going away with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. a revelation in left field, Grichuk on a guaranteed multi-year contract in right, and the one-year-Hernandez’s-junior Derek Fisher now in the fold boasting a similar offensive profile with the benefit of a left-handed bat. Not to mention Billy McKinney and Anthony Alford waiting in the weeds.

Meanwhile, it was a surprise to some that Drury didn’t follow Hernandez to Buffalo when he was in the thick of his struggles and not often seeing his name in Montoyo’s lineups. The Blue Jays were obviously rewarded for sticking by him. But with Biggio, Bichette, and Guerrero deserving of every day playing time around the diamond, Smoak keeping first base warm while Rowdy Tellez is hitting .366/.450/.688 over 26 games since his mid-season demotion to Buffalo, and Richard Urena out of options next spring, Drury has to fight for every opportunity he gets.

As his last six weeks indicate, Drury’s not short on offensive potential. The problem’s been consistency. If he can have more nights like Monday, when he put three balls in play at over 100-m.p.h., and less nights like he was having earlier this season, when he struck out multiple times in nine of his first 15 starts, he can position himself as part of the club’s future rather than a stopgap between now and then.

Drury’s only in his mid-20’s, remember, which is old on this roster but isn’t in this game. Josh Donaldson didn’t break out until 27. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, not until 29. The rare guys, like Bichette, seem to have it all figured out at 21. Most take a little time.

“I’m putting in the work every day to be the best player I can be to help this team win. We’ve got six weeks left in the season, and I’m looking forward to being in the lineup with these guys. This is exciting,” Drury said. “This is my fourth year in the league so it’s not like that’s a super long time. But I’ve been in multiple clubhouses for some years now so I feel like I can help guys if they need help. And if they don’t and they just go about their business the way they do, they’re good, too. They’re so talented that I’m not sure how much help they really need.”

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