Smoak having major impact in heart of order

Smoak having major impact in heart of order

TORONTO -- In the ever-changing world of the 2017 Blue Jays, Justin Smoak has kept the heart of Toronto's order ticking amid a string of injuries and unexpectedly slow starts. Smoak's roll continued on Thursday as he led Toronto's 7-2 win over Seattle, where he spent parts of five seasons before joining the Blue Jays.

After driving a pair of line-drive singles back up the middle earlier in the game, Smoak capped it off with a 409-foot solo home run in the seventh that gave him his fourth RBI of the night. The blast was Smoak's sixth of the season, tying him with Kendrys Morales for the team lead.

"I think he's a little more aggressive early in the count and he's laying off that bad breaking ball," said Toronto manager John Gibbons. "He's jumping on the pitches early in the at-bats. You get the breaking ball late, but don't let them get to the off-speed stuff. He got a steady diet of it last year, especially in the second half of the season, so he knows he's going to get it."

A key to Smoak's turnaround has been his dominance against the fastball and an ability to set up that pitch. His first single of the game and his home run both came on four-seamers, which follows a standout trend from the early weeks of this season.

Entering play on Thursday, Smoak was hitting .314 with a .714 slugging percentage against the four-seam fastball, well up from marks of .247 and .449, respectively, in 2016. The first baseman is feeling more comfortable at the plate this year and looking more versatile, which showed Thursday as he impacted the game with a contact-first single and then raw power in separate at-bats.

"I think it's consistency, just being in there more," Smoak said. "Really knowing that you're going to be in there when you show up to the park every day."

Injuries to Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki forced Toronto's entire lineup to move up a rung or two on the ladder, and a recent hamstring injury to Morales has stretched the Blue Jays even thinner one through nine.

Smoak's .810 OPS is currently the highest among healthy Blue Jays hitters. When paired with Kevin Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera, who have also gone above expectations hitting at the top of the order, Toronto have been able to stay in games consistently of late and have now won four of its last five.

"With the team we've had the last few years, we expect to win every day," Smoak said. "Whether it's the nine hitter, or one through nine, we feel like we can do it as a team."

Keegan Matheson is a reporter for based in Toronto. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.