Morneau off to hot start

Melissa Couto talks Justin Morneau, Edwin Encarnacion, Anthony Gose, Todd Redmond, James Paxton, Peter Orr, Tyler O’Neill and more in this week’s ThrowinSmoke

Melissa Couto talks Justin Morneau, Edwin Encarnacion, Anthony Gose, Todd Redmond, James Paxton, Peter Orr, Tyler O’Neill and more in this week’s ThrowinSmoke

It's amazing what a little hockey tape can do. Just ask Justin Morneau's teammates.

Prior to Canada's infamous World Baseball Classic game against Mexico in March 2013, the New Westminster, B.C., native passed a roll of hockey tape around the locker-room and asked everyone to put a strip of it somewhere on their jerseys.

"Some of the guys used it to hold up their socks, others around belt loops," said Canada's WBC catcher, Chris Robinson of Dorchester, Ont. "Then we went out and played one of the most memorable baseball games in Canadian history."

Canada routed Mexico 10-3, but it was a dugout-clearing brawl — brought about by Robinson's bunt single to lead off the ninth inning — that garnered attention both north and south of the border.

And the hockey-tape wearing tradition didn't stop there.  [Chris-Robinson-bunt]

Two weeks after Canada was eliminated from the WBC, Robinson, then in the Baltimore Orioles organization, sat in the visiting locker-room in Fort Myers, Fla., about to play a spring training game against Morneau's Minnesota Twins when a young clubhouse attendant came in and handed him a bag.

Robinson opened it, and smiled.

"There was a full roll of hockey tape in there, sent over by Justin," said the now retired 30-year-old, who made his big league debut last September with the San Diego Padres after nine seasons in the minors. "Being the superstitious player I was, I would use it occasionally throughout the year when I felt I needed some mojo.

"I like to think it was that roll of hockey tape that got me to the big leagues. When I got called up, I sent Justin a picture of that same roll of tape in my locker in San Diego — that's how I told him I was in the big leagues. He sent me a great message congratulating me, and asked to have (the tape) back because he needed some more hits down the stretch."

Though Robinson didn't part with his lucky tape, he did give Morneau a brand new role near the end of the season when the Padres visited the Pirates — who had traded for the first baseman in August.

Maybe that explains why the 33-year-old Morneau is off to his best start since 2010 — when his season was cut short after he suffered a concussion sliding into John McDonald's knee at second base at Rogers Centre.

Now with the Colorado Rockies after signing a two-year, $12.5 million US deal in the off-season, Morneau is hitting .327 (.417 over the last seven days) with a .944 on-base plus slugging percentage. He has nine home runs, including a walk-off homer in Colorado's 10th inning victory over San Diego on Sunday.

Robinson, who also played with Morneau at the 2006 WBC, says he isn't surprised to see his former teammate enjoy renewed success.

"He battled some injuries over the last couple years, but even last year, his first healthy season in a few, he showed signs of the player we were all used to following," Robinson said. "It's pretty exciting to see him back playing at the level he is.

"He epitomizes the Canadian player, he's one of the most patriotic people I know, and despite being a superstar, he plays the game hard every day with a blue-collar type work ethic. ... He's a guy everyone should be rooting for."

TOP BLUE JAYS OF THE WEEK

— Edwin Encarnacion had his fourth multi-homer game of the month on Wednesday, when he smacked two over the Green Monster at Fenway Park. It was the second time in as many days that Encarnacion hit two homers in a game. The first baseman/designated hitter now has 11 home runs so far in May, one shy of the Blue Jays record for the month (Jose Bautista hit 12 in May 2010).

— Centre-fielder Anthony Gose is showing marked improvement from his last stint in the big leagues. The 23-year-old, who's filling in while Colby Rasmus is on the disabled list, has five hits, including two doubles, and seven walks in eight games. Gose walked just five times through 52 big-league games in 2013.

NOTES: RHP Drew Hutchison has given up just one earned run through his last two starts. Hutchison pitched a complete-game shutout versus Texas last week, and allowed one run through 5 2/3 innings against the Red Sox Wednesday night. ... RP Casey Janssen is a perfect 5-for-5 in saves since returning from the DL.

GET TO KNOW... RP TODD REDMOND

My most memorable game: I'd have to say my first major-league win — that felt pretty good. It was against the Twins last year, I pitched  [Todd-Redmond] five innings and gave up a couple runs, but we (the Blue Jays) ended up winning 11-5.

The best advice I've ever received: Stay humble, work hard, and be yourself. That's what you have to do to be successful up here. Coming up through the minor leagues you always hear some sort of variation of that throughout the different levels, so that's something that stuck with me.

CANADIANS IN THE MAJORS

Seattle Mariners LHP James Paxton (Ladner, B.C.) is well on his road to recovery after straining his left lat muscle Apr. 8.

Paxton pitched his second simulated game Tuesday, throwing 56 pitches over three innings.

Next up for the 25-year-old is a rehab assignment in the minor leagues. If all goes according to plan, he should be back with the Mariners by early June.

Paxton is 5-0 with a 1.75 ERA through six career major-league starts (including two this season).

NOTES: The Cincinnati Reds put Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) on the 15-day DL with a left leg injury on Wednesday. Votto is batting .257 with a .410 OBP through 39 games. He played all 162 games for the Reds last season. ... LHP Jeff Francis (North Delta, B.C.) was claimed off waivers by the Oakland Athletics on Sunday. He'll be working out of the A's bullpen.

CANADIANS IN THE MINORS

Mariners prospect Tyler O'Neill (Maple Ridge, B.C.) will be out at least 10 weeks with a broken hand.

The single-A Clinton LumberKings outfielder punched a wall after a three-strikeout performance May 10, fracturing and compressing the  [T-O'Neill] fifth metacarpal in his right hand. He was on an eight-game hitting streak at the time of the injury.

O'Neill, 18, had surgery in Arizona Tuesday to realign the bone with four pins. His hand will be immobilized for six weeks before any rehab can begin.

The Canadian was drafted by the Mariners in the third round last June.

NOTES: INF Pete Orr (Richmond Hill, Ont.) has 10 hits in his last six games for the Brewers' triple-A affiliate, the Nashville Sounds ... LHP Scott Diamond (Guelph, Ont.) gave up three earned runs on six hits and zero walks over seven innings for Minnesota's triple-A Rochester Red Wings on Tuesday. Diamond is 2-5 with a 6.70 ERA through nine starts. ... RHP Nick Pivetta (Victoria) has won five straight starts for the Washington Nationals' single-A Hagerstown Suns. Pivetta is 7-2 with a 3.27 ERA.

-- Follow Melissa Couto on Twitter: @throwinsmoke

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Melissa Couto

My name is Melissa Couto. I'm a sports reporter-editor at The Canadian Press, where I've worked for the past two years. Mostly I work on the night desk, editing copy for print, online and broadcast, but I have been doing more and more writing recently. I also contribute to the Canadian Baseball Network, a website founded by renowned Toronto Sun columnist Bob Elliott.

 

I'm a graduate of Centennial College's sports journalism post-graduate program. Before that, I went to Western where I completed a BA and MA in American history (it's helped me impress people when we're watching Jeopardy). In all seriousness, my time at Western was valuable.  I walked away with a real passion for writing. When I took the post-grad program at Centennial, I learned to merge that love of writing with the love of sport that I've always had (particularly for baseball), and as they say, the rest is history.