Thrust into starting role, Mathis delivers key hit

Thrust into starting role, Mathis delivers key hit

Thrust into starting role, Mathis delivers key hit
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays have been saying all year that they believe Jeff Mathis is a better hitter than most people perceived him to be before the start of the 2012 campaign.

Toronto's veteran catcher has the opportunity to prove his coaching staff and bosses were right. Promoted from backup to starter following an injury to J.P. Arencibia, Mathis has seized the everyday duties and has gotten off to a good start.

Mathis hit a key three-run double in the fourth inning, while Travis Snider added a late homer to propel the Blue Jays to an 8-3 victory over the Tigers on Friday night at Rogers Centre.

"We acquired him as a top-notch defender, but when we got him in Spring Training, we felt there was no reason why he couldn't be more of an offensive player," manager John Farrell said. "Whether there was a different emphasis to his game while coming over here, or the fact that we took a little bit different approach with his setup at the plate, it has paid dividends."

Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos had been a fan of Mathis for a long time before the two joined forces in Toronto. He respected the way Mathis was able to handle a pitching staff and viewed him as one of the best defensive catchers in the Major Leagues.

Despite the prolonged interest, the opportunity to acquire Mathis didn't present itself until last offseason. When Jose Molina opted to sign with Tampa Bay, that left a second-string catcher spot up for grabs, and Anthopoulos jumped at the opportunity by acquiring Mathis from the Angels for left-hander Brad Mills.

The move has been beneficial for both sides in part because Toronto hitting coach Dwayne Murphy made a few changes to Mathis' mechanics. He instructed Mathis to set up in the batter's box with his back foot closer to the plate and to use a more open-faced stance.

That has enabled Mathis to get a better view of the ball out of the pitcher's hand. It's still a small sample size, but the changes have worked as the career .199 hitter is batting .264 with six homers and 13 RBIs in 32 games.

"Me and Murph have been working on some things, making some adjustments, and I'm starting to feel more comfortable at the plate and more confident," said Mathis, who extended his hitting streak to eight games with the double. "Just seeing some pitches better, having better at-bats, getting myself into better counts. All of that plays."

Mathis' opportunity on Friday came with his club trailing, 2-1. Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello allowed a leadoff single to Colby Rasmus, then proceeded to issue a pair of walks.

Porcello quickly fell behind 1-0, then hung a slider that Mathis drove over the head of left fielder Quintin Berry. All three runners came around to score, while Mathis later followed suit on a single by rookie outfielder Anthony Gose, who collected his first RBI.

"I got a right-handed hitter that I wanted up there and just didn't make a good pitch to him and got burned," said Porcello, who allowed five runs over six innings. "It was really just a matter of one pitch that ended up being the difference.

"I really don't care what happened the rest of the game -- that slider was a three-run pitch right there. That wasn't good."

The Blue Jays added an insurance run in the seventh as Brett Lawrie and Omar Vizquel recorded back-to-back triples. The offense kept coming in the eighth as Snider sent a 1-0 offering from reliever Duane Below over the wall in right-center field for a two-run shot. Snider is hitting .308 (8-for-26) with three home runs and eight RBIs in seven games since being promoted from Triple-A Las Vegas.

Right-hander Carlos Villanueva began his outing by retiring the first two batters he faced, then proceeded to surrender back-to-back homers to Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

Villanueva eventually settled down, but found himself in a lot of deep counts and had already thrown 54 pitches by the end of the second. He managed to get through five frames without allowing another run en route to a fourth consecutive victory.

The 28-year-old, who improved to 6-0, has now made five starts since joining the rotation on June 29. He hasn't allowed more than three runs in an outing and has posted a 2.54 ERA over that span. It wasn't necessarily pretty, but Villanueva did enough to get the job done.

"[Bench coach Don] Wakamatsu said it best, I felt like a magician out there today," Villanueva said. "Pulling all the tricks out. I know some starts are going to be that way, probably more than I want to during the course of a season, but it worked. I'd rather have it that way than having to go to the bullpen a lot earlier. I'll take it as a positive and get ready for the next one."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.