DUNEDIN, FLA.—Oy vey. There are moments when Kevin Pillar could smack himself upside the head.
Which is also punishment that the Mensch on a Bench might deliver — if he were, you know, a real person and not a life-size stuffed mascot, the Jewish version of the Elf on the Shelf, checked through to South Korea in a duffel bag by Team Israel.
That’s Team Israel as in the unlikely squad wowing the World Baseball Classic, 2-0 in the round-robin phase after stomping Chinese Taipei (ranked No. 4 globally) 15-7 and edging South Korea (No. 3) 2-1, clinching a quarter-finals berth with first place in Pool A to be decided Thursday in Seoul in a match with the Netherlands.
Lowest seeded among 16 tournament entries, the underdog Israelis — although only one player is Israel-born — have been likened to Jamaica’s endearing Olympic bobsled team, except this outfit is unexpectedly winning on the world stage. And Pillar could have been part of the Cinderella story, in the first time Israel has qualified for the event.
“Obviously, when you see the success they’re having, there’s some regret,” acknowledges Pillar, currently patrolling centre field and often leading off for the Blue Jays at spring training. “I’ve definitely tuned in and watched. I’m happy for those guys.”
Pillar had been coveted by Team Israel management for a squad made up of minor-leaguers, ex-major-league journeymen and part-timers. Not a single member is on any major-league 40-man roster. The handful of prime-time Jewish-y players who were courted — including four-time all-star Ian Kinsler and second overall draft pick Alex Bregman — opted for Team USA.
A siren-song Pillar couldn’t have resisted either, pulling on that American jersey, had he been tapped. “I don’t necessarily feel the connection to Israel as much as I would the United States,” he says. “I know it’s politically incorrect but if it was Team Jewish or The Jews, I think there would be a little more connection to it. I’m not from Israel. I’ve never even been to Israel.”
The Classic cleaves to a heritage rule: Anyone eligible to hold citizenship in a country can play for that national team, which generally extends to a grandparent. As per Israel’s Law of Return, Jews the world over can seek Israeli citizenship; Pillar’s mother is Jewish.
Pillar would like to have gone over at least on a promotional trip in January, banging the drum for baseball, but there was a wedding he had to attend. He does anticipate making the Holy Land journey at some point; wants to see the plaque at Tel Aviv University honouring his grandfather — the Ed Lambert Scholarship foundation set up for an accounting student, having helped raise $40,000 for it last year.
That’s all way down the line. On deck is Pillar’s third full season with the Jays, healed up from the torn thumb ligament that put him on the DL for 15 days last August and impeded his performance at the plate after he suffered the injury sliding into second base. He hit no regular-season home runs upon his return, though few were aware of his lingering discomfort. Tape wrapping his thumb was hidden by his batting glove. Afield, he wore a thumb guard and the injury didn’t seem to affect his eye-popping climb-the-wall or leap-horizontally on line-drive catches, the stuff of his Superman moniker.
The Jays organization, at Pillar’s urging, kept his condition on the down-low. “You don’t want your opponent to know that you’re hurt. If people knew that I was playing with a torn thumb, maybe they’d pitch me differently, maybe I’m not as effective. It wasn’t the same as playing with two hands, but I don’t use it as an excuse. If I’m in the lineup, whether it’s a torn thumb ligament or a sore hamstring, if I choose to play that day or they pencil me in, I’m going to play to the best of my ability.’’
It was the second year in a row Pillar contended with a hand injury. He played through a broken left hand in his breakout 2015 season. “Nobody knew about that either.”
For a guy who was drafted 979th by Toronto in 2011, Pillar has made his major-league mark, especially for superlative defence, although some will snark that he makes those highlight-reel catches look harder than they are, or should be. He bridles at being categorized as a one-dimensional specialist, anchoring a Blue Jays defence with the best run prevention stats in the American League. However, both Pillar’s on-base percentage (.303) and batting average (.266) did slip slightly in 2016, with home runs down from a dozen to seven, and stolen bases to 14 from 25.
The one-time high school running back is, after all, among Toronto’s fleetest of foot, with Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera, albeit on a long-ball team which doesn’t put much stock in speed.
“It’s not that we undervalue stolen bases, speed and stealing bases. It’s that we’re so confident in our offence that we’d rather not make an out trying to steal second and go first to third on a base hit instead. The biggest thing we preach for guys like myself and Melvin and Zeke, the guys that do steal, is we want to take the bases we know we can get.’’
A couple of hand injuries aside, the 28-year-old is among the most durable of ballplayers; only 39 players have racked up more games since Pillar became a regular in ’15.
“I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I have around 1,500 at-bats (including post-season: 1,426). I’m no longer new. They know me and I know a lot of the pitchers. I have a body of work off most guys I’m going to face.”
So now it’s about refining approach, which is why he had bi-weekly sessions with hitting coach Brook Jacoby over the winter.
“Really getting more into the mental side of the game, as far as sitting on pitches, how guys are going to attack me, as opposed to me going up there really just trying to look fastball and make adjustments. It’s about me working on my approach, sticking with it, being more disciplined.
“I think I become a sucker when I go up there and just try to hit anything.’’