Escobar fitting in just fine with new club

Escobar fitting in just fine with new club

TORONTO -- Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar stood on the field, smiling wide, shoulders bouncing as he tried to hold in his laughter. There was no use trying to hide the grin, not with the Rogers Centre crowd on its feet and roaring.

Escobar had just finished a brilliant display of improvisation. During the fifth inning on Tuesday night, he pulled off a jaw-dropping maneuver up the middle, stunning everyone in attendance, whether they were in the stands or on the field.

And, as Escobar stood there, smiling and soaking in a standing ovation, taking time to point to each of his fellow infielders, the newly acquired shortstop felt accepted.

"That felt really good," Escobar said. "The crowd's reaction made me feel like I'm at home now."

It had been a while since Escobar -- after feeling ostracized within Atlanta's clubhouse -- felt so welcome. When the Blue Jays added the shortstop over the All-Star break as part of a five-player trade with the Braves, media reports poured out of Atlanta, ripping into Escobar's attitude and effort level.

Escobar, who claims there were simply miscommunication issues with his former team, labored through a rough first half and his stock with the Braves slid accordingly. Voted the club's Most Valuable Player by the team's writers a year ago, Escobar became expendable and Atlanta found a taker in Toronto.

The 27-year-old Escobar found a fresh start.

So far, a happy Escobar has been a productive Escobar, too. He recorded at least one hit in each of his first 10 games with the Blue Jays and has hit at a .354 clip since joining his new team. After hitting no home runs in 75 games with the Braves in the first half, Escobar has two (one grand slam) with Toronto.

"I've got a clean head now," Escobar said.

Part of the reason for that is the support group that the Jays have placed around Escobar.

"Anything that he needs, we're there for him," manager Cito Gaston said. "We let him know that we're here to help him and to encourage him to be a better player -- the all-around player that he can be."

The organization, which views Escobar as a part of its future core, plans on working with the shortstop on his English. For now, though, bench coach Nick Leyva has served as his interpreter. Teammates Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have also stepped up in helping Escobar transition to his new team and city.

"The biggest thing is that everybody is trying to help me," Escobar said. "I appreciate that. I'm starting to feel a lot more comfortable with my surroundings."

The Jays wanted to provide Escobar with a clean slate -- no matter what type of reputation the shortstop gained in his four seasons with the Braves.

"You can't judge him by what people said out there," pitcher Ricky Romero said. "I think from Day 1 we made him feel comfortable. That's the biggest thing. We took him in as part of the family."

Romero -- one of Toronto's emerging leaders -- made a point to pull Escobar aside when the shortstop joined the Jays for their first series of the second half in Baltimore.

"We had a good talk," Romero said. "I told him that if he ever needed anything or had any questions that he could come up to me. Obviously, he has the other guys, too. More veteran guys. It seems like he's adapted pretty well.

"He's having fun and he's a pretty upbeat guy."

Flashy, too.

Baltimore's Jake Fox can attest to that after sending the first pitch he received from Romero on Tuesday night back up the middle. With runners on first and second base in the fifth, the baseball bounced sharply to the left of the mound, where Romero turned and watched it skip toward center field.

Escobar sprinted after the grounder with little time to spare.

"When I saw him run up the middle," Romero said, "I was like, 'Whoa, there's no way he gets to that.'"

Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill wasn't sure Escobar had a chance, either.

"It was one of those weird plays," Hill said. "If it was a regular ground ball, that's a routine play. It was hit and then it had a lot of spin off the end of the bat, so it just keeps going [away from Escobar] and it caught him off guard.

"I didn't know what was going to happen."

Neither did Escobar, really.

"I thought I could get to the ball," Escobar said. "But I didn't know what I was going to do with it."

In one smooth motion, Escobar bent and snared the baseball from the turf. Still running toward center, the shortstop used a behind-the-back glove flip to send the ball to Hill for a forceout at second base. One foot on the bag, Hill stretched out his arm and caught the relay, and the stadium erupted in loud cheers.

"I wasn't expecting it," said Hill, who then shook his head and laughed. "It looked good, didn't it? It looked really good."

"Amazing," Bautista said.

In his first game with the Jays, Escobar did a similar behind-the-back glove flip to Hill after catching a line drive. That time, it was after the play, with no runners on base, and it was just for fun. Escobar said he had never tried to do the same thing during a game for an out.

"I wouldn't teach it to kids, either," he said with a laugh.

For Escobar, the reaction he received may have been more important that the out, though. Given the way things went during his exit out of Atlanta, Escobar's Toronto teammates will thrilled to see him rewarded with a strong response from his new home crowd.

"That's always fun, especially seeing the smile on his face," Hill said. "You make a play -- any type of play -- it's hard to hold it in. You saw him happy and the crowd was going nuts. It's one of those special moments in the game."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.