Drayer: Encarnación’s unexpected Mariners tenure is worth appreciating
If you haven’t already, you might want to take a moment to appreciate Edwin Encarnación.
Over the last 2 1/2 months we have watched him mash home runs and gamely play a position that he most likely did not prepare much to play on a team he never expected to be a part of. Sure, he has a job to do no matter what uniform he is wearing, but the way he has done it is something that was perhaps unexpected.
Acquired along with a competitive balance draft pick from the Cleveland Indians for Carlos Santana, the Mariners had every intention to trade Encarnación again in their step-back year. But there he was in Peoria this spring, in the most awkward of spots, knowing that he was not part of the plan.
A quiet player who doesn’t talk to the media much, we learned little about him in spring training. He was that guy who hit a lot of home runs in Toronto a few years back and had the extra perk of carrying a parrot with him on those round trippers. We knew that he was typically a slow starter and that he was on his own get-ready plan because that’s what Mariners manager Scott Servais told us. We assumed that he would spend most of his time at DH because he hadn’t played much in the field in the past few years. We even had questions about that because at no point in spring training did the bat look quick or loud.
At 36, perhaps those days were over. This surely was going to be a bad fit on a team that needed to find answers about young players.
Since the end of spring training we have learned that it is best not to judge a book by its cover. Encarnación has been terrific in every aspect of his game. When Kyle Seager went down with a hand injury, the first base glove was put on and Edwin planted himself there. Despite having played just 22 games in the field last season and having spent an offseason preparing to be a DH, he quickly established that, with Ryon Healy at third, he was the best defensive option at first. The more you watched him the more you realized he was fundamentally sound. What’s more, he’s looked like he has enjoyed playing the field. A pleasant surprise for us, but probably not for those who know him.
The biggest and most enjoyable surprise has been how hard he has played. He has never had the look of a player who is waiting for the next trade, and he has never, ever had the look of a player who is holding back or protecting himself in hopes of being traded. He has played all out.
From the dive he made at second base when Dee Gordon and Dylan Moore were injured in the same game to another dive he made last week to reach first base with his glove in a game where the Mariners trailed by many, Encarnación has been not just the picture of professionalism, but the picture of player. He has one speed, regardless of situation. He’s going to play the game.
It is clear he is a good and respected teammate. While not overly demonstrative on or off the field, it is not uncommon to see him turn to his dugout with a gesture of encouragement or “let’s get going” after a walk. A walk.
Regardless of whether or not he is or was expected to be here, he is here and he has shown quiet investment. As mentioned above, he does not speak much with the media. He doesn’t appear to want the spotlight in any way. The parrot is perhaps a concession because the fans and teammates appreciate it.
On Sunday when he became just the 56th player in the history of the game to hit his 400th home run, he watched the ball into the glove of Roenis Elías in the bullpen, then started his trot with a fist pump toward his cheering teammates in the dugout.
“Everybody was waiting for it, and me as well. I felt very, very humble that I did it today,” Encarnación said after Sunday’s game. “It’s a lot of homers and a lot of RBIs. I never expected to get to that point. The only thing I can do is keep working. Keep working hard, keep focused and try to do the best I can do to help my team to win.”
The interview was a reluctant duty he had to fulfill. Domingo Santana took delight in his teammate’s discomfort with the attention, shouting “Interview, interview” in a singsong way as the media gathered around Encarnación’s locker. Domingo then was coerced into being the not-very-much-needed interpreter for the session with the media, and the victim of some razzing for his efforts when Encarnación was asked at the end of the interview what happened when Santana outran his cleats and ended up on his back chasing a ball in foul territory.
“Translate?” asked Encarnación with a sly smile, fully understanding the question.
Santana sheepishly translated.
“I don’t know, maybe banana there?” Encarnación answered, drawing howls from Shed Long and other teammates who were sitting nearby. “That’s what happened.”
An appreciated part of the clubhouse, an appreciated part of the team and now a part of baseball history with 400 home runs to his name. Regardless of how long he has remaining with the team, in a short time Edwin Encarnación has made his mark with the Mariners.