TORONTO – Under cover of darkness, Kevin Pillar left Buffalo Monday night, called up to the Blue Jays just in time to miss the Bisons’ Fan Appreciation Night showdown with Pawtucket. As it turns out, the Jays actually needed him to play center field because Colby Rasmus was ill.
Pillar had a sensational season with the Bisons, but three nondescript trips to the big leagues the last two years. And he returned to Triple-A in June after a dugout argument with Toronto manager John Gibbons earned him a one-way ticket back down the QEW.
But Pillar didn’t sulk. He put together one of the best seasons by a Bison in recent memory, earning the team’s MVP award and getting named an IL all-star. Saturday in Rogers Centre, he made his fourth straight start in center field – and Rasmus is now healthy again too.
“I definitely went down, worked every day and kept the goal of getting back up here,” Pillar said. “I understood there was work to be done. I had three different short tours of duty up here and what I was doing didn’t work. I had to go back to the drawing board and make adjustments down there.”
Indeed, Pillar dropped his hands some and cut down on the length of his swing. It was an change he made after the all-star break that had been in the offing during spring training but got dropped when he opened the season 5 for 44 in his first 10 games in Buffalo. That means he batted .349 over his final 90 games for the Herd.
Pillar clearly looked calmer in the batter’s box. His swing was compact and he wasn’t lurching at pitches, especially fastballs up and away.
“I like the way he looks,” Gibbons said. “He made the adjustments with his hands. It’s tough breaking in the big leagues. He’s been here before and his play has been kind of sporadic, platoon-type thing. But he’s earned the right for his opportunity to be here.”
“When you feel comfortable with your surroundings, with your teammates and coaching staff, your nerves calm down and you focus on the task at hand and it’s getting a good pitch to hit,” Pillar said. “I think that’s something I forgot about in the past.
“I was trying to get hits on every pitch I saw here to prove myself. I understand you have to take baby steps. Have good at-bats, see pitches, not chase is a step in the right direction and the hits will come.”
Pillar has been terrific defensively, making head-long dives to rob Brian McCann and Brett Gardner for hits the last two days. He played mostly left field in Buffalo with Anthony Gose in center and has the versatility he needs to move around. He’s proud of the way his all-around game was honored at the end of the Bisons’ season.
“Anytime you can get accolades like that at any level of baseball for anything you’re doing is good,” Pillar said. “They don’t just give them out. You have to go earn them. I was really happy with the season there. I’m off to a good start here and hope to continue it all September.”
Pillar is most pleased with the way Gibbons greeted him when he reported for work on Tuesday. The Blue Jays’ manager told reporters his spat with Pillar “was over the day he left” and reiterated that during a face-to-face meeting. “It was all positive on his end,” Pillar said. “I was definitely nervous going into it but he embraced me with a warm smile and took all the fear away from the start. I learned from my mistake and I’m thankful he’s not the kind of guy that will hold a grudge. There are people in this game who will, and I would have never seen this locker room again. We’ve both been able to move on and I’m looking to a fresh start.”
Pillar is looking forward to plenty of starts in September but was quick to look back on the Bisons’ playoff push and the way fans responded this month in Coca-Cola Field.
“It was an incredible environment,” Pillar said. “I think that’s exactly what the Blue Jays organization envisioned there when they got their Triple-A agreement. Especially when the parent team is on the road, we tended to get a lot of Blue Jays fans coming down.
“We were fighting for the playoffs the last homestand, the stands were packed when we were chasing it. They were excited fans. They really wanted to make the playoffs because there’s been some tough times with their sports in Buffalo and we were hoping to get in for them.”
Don’t chirp the fans
From the Marquise Goodwin school of “Don’t chirp at the fans when their team has lost for years” comes this pearl from Royals manager Ned Yost, who should be far more concerned about staying ahead of the Tigers in the American League Central than how busy the turnstiles are at Kauffman Stadium.
But the first thing – the first thing! – Yost had to say after Alex Gordon’s walkoff homer beat the Twins on Tuesday was “I mean, what, 13,000 people got to see a great game?”
Yes, the Royals had more than 31,000 for Derek Jeter’s finale the previous night. And they deserve more for the way they’ve played. But it’s a weeknight against the Twins and school is back in session in the Midwest. And it’s been 29 years since they made the postseason.
And you just can’t plunk down 10 bucks and go to the ballpark anymore. Players, executives and everyone in the game have to understand that fact, combined with the ability to watch every game on television or mobile. It’s not such a slam-dunk anymore that you’re going to the ballpark just because your team is winning.
After further review
We hit the 1,000 mark in instant replay review challenges last week. Entering the weekend, there had been 1,030 reviews and 478 of them (46.4 percent) resulted in a reversal.
The average review time is 1 minute, 49 seconds. Not bad. That’s far less than what it would often take for managers to stomp around on the field. Now baseball just has to do something with the confusion about the blocking-the-plate rule.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi was baffled here Friday night on the play that saw Jacoby Ellsbury hurt his ankle. Jays catcher Dioner Navarro was standing right on the baseline without the ball but Girardi didn’t get a reversal when he asked for that play to be reviewed.
• Former Bisons manager Wally Backman was named manager of the year in the Pacific Coast League last week after leading Las Vegas to its second straight division championship. Still, the Mets seem set with Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Terry Collins in the big leagues and Backman appears blocked.
• Nashville closed 36-year-old Greer Stadium with an 8-5 loss to Sacramento on Thursday night. Greer was a regular haunt for the Bisons during their 13 American Association seasons, and was the site of the Herd’s first modern-era Triple-A game in 1985. The Bisons lost that one, 3-1. The Sounds, Triple-A affiliate of the Brewers, are moving into a new $37 million downtown stadium called First Tennessee Park. And just like Greer, it will have an iconic guitar-shaped scoreboard.
• While the Jamestown Jammers prepare to play the final game in their history Monday afternoon, the Batavia Muckdogs are looking ahead. The Dogs announced a two-year extension of their working agreement with the Miami Marlins that takes them through 2016.
• Albuquerque’s Joc Pederson, a 22-year-old top outfield prospect in the Dodgers chain, was named PCL Rookie of the Year and MVP after becoming the first player in the league since 1934 to go 30-30 in home runs and stolen bases. The Dodgers’ 11th-round pick in 2010, Pederson entered the weekend batting .307 with 33 homers, 78 RBIs and 30 steals.
• Left-hander Henry Owens – who shut down the Bisons for Pawtucket on Fan Appreciation Night – was named Pitcher of the Year in the Eastern League after going 14-4, 2.60 in 20 starts for Portland. The Californian was Boston’s first-round supplemental pick in 2011.