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Jose Bautista stands next to Fisher Cats manager Sal Fasano as Bautista prepares for his first at-bat Thursday at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester. Bautista is here on a rehab assignment. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

Kevin Gray's On Baseball: Bautista is swinging away

MANCHESTER -- Long before Jose Bautista joined the 50-homer club and graced the video game cover of MLB 12 The Show, he was just another Eastern League outfielder hoping to catch a break.

Bautista, who joined the Fisher Cats on a rehab assignment Thursday, played here with the Altoona Curve in July 2005 and went 2-for-12 in the series. He batted .283 and swatted 23 homers that season, finishing the year as a September call-up with Pittsburgh.

But the power-hitting prospect never quite clicked with the Pirates. He was projected as a fourth outfielder and left exposed in the Rule 5 Draft during baseball's winter meetings. The Pirates eventually traded Bautista for a player to be named later (Robinzon Diaz) in 2008.

Diaz, an ex-Fisher Cats catcher, stayed a minor-league journeyman while Bautista transformed into baseball's greatest home run hitter. After mashing 54 homers in 2010, Bautista signed a five-year contract for $65 million. He followed that season with 43 homers and had 27 more this season before injuring his wrist at Yankee Stadium in mid-July.

So how did Bautista do it? What's the secret? Many continue to raise the question of performance-enhancing drugs, though Bautista has tested clean more than 20 times over the past three seasons. Steroids aren't the reason for his success.

On Thursday night against New Britain, Bautista walked on five pitches in the first inning, then showed his stuff in the fourth inning. His grand slam, which rocketed into the Hilton Garden Inn patio, gave the Fisher Cats a 5-4 lead. He added a solo homer in the eighth as New Hampshire prevailed, 9-6.

His journey to megastardom began in September 2008, in a batting cage, with Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy. Bautista always had lightning-quick hands and a powerful swing, but pitchers often tied him up because he wasn't properly loaded and ready to hit, he explained.

Bautista began training to sit back on pitches, loading his hands into a trigger position before the pitcher released the ball. Like a boxer getting ready to deliver a punch to the stomach, Bautista coils back and launches his hands through a downward swing path. The power surge begins with a trademark leg kick — and bye, bye, baseball.

&#';I started getting ready way earlier during the pitcher's delivery. That allowed me to be on time and square up the ball more often,&#'; he said.

More playing time led to more confidence. Bautista began pouncing on HIS pitch instead of reacting to the pitcher's pitch. He began seeing pitches a nano-second longer, allowing the ball to travel deeper into the strike zone. As a result, he generated more back spin on fly balls. They traveled farther, more often clearing the outfield walls.

&#';There's not one way to be successful hitter. Everyone needs to be confident and comfortable,&#'; he said. &#';There are keys to hitting, like being ready on time, staying inside the ball, adjusting to counts, watching what the pitcher is doing.&#';

Bautista said he hopes to join the Blue Jays in Baltimore today. He took some hacks against New Britain and then planned to pack his bags.

&#';Just hopefully get some pitches in the zone and get a couple swings. I don't feel any pain in my wrist when I swing. If I can get my timing down, I'll be fine,&#'; said Bautista, who batted leadoff.

Former Eastern League MVP Adam Lind batted in the No. 2 hole as the designated hitter on Thursday night. The lefty slugger is recovering from a sore back and expected to stay with the Fisher Cats for at least a few days.

Lind has fond memories of playing for New Hampshire in 2006 and tearing up the Eastern League, batting .310 with 24 doubles, 19 homers and 71 RBIs. His big-league career has turned out as productive as could be expected. In 2009, he was the top American League hitter, batting .305 with 35 homers and 114 RBIs.

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GAME DAY: The final homestand of the season continues tonight (7:05) against the Rock Cats. New Hampshire righty Yohan Pino (8-7, 3.48 ERA) gets the start, opposed by New Britain lefty Logan Darnell (9-11, 5.08 ERA).

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Staff writer Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His email address is kgray@unionleader.com. Twitter: @graymatter11.

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