'Shy' Raimel Tapia fitting right in with fun-loving Blue Jays

TORONTO – In a clubhouse filled with bubbly personalities, Raimel Tapia may seem out of place at first.

The Toronto Blue Jays outfielder, acquired in a trade with the Colorado Rockies in the spring, landed on a team that has as much talent as it has fun. For a new and timid player, it can be hard to adapt.

But that hasn’t been the case.

“He’s a little shy, he doesn’t speak a lot, but you can see he really gets along with his teammates,” Blue Jays third base coach Luis Rivera said of Tapia on Saturday. “He’s fit right in with the team.”

Tapia does things a little differently.

Raimel Tapia is already making his mark on the Blue Jays. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Raimel Tapia is already making his mark on the Blue Jays. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

While Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Bo Bichette are dancing around and cracking jokes during batting practice, Tapia patiently waits his turn, emulating a swing as another teammate takes the cage. He has a farm in his native Dominican Republic, where he spent a lot of time during the MLB lockout waiting for the sport to open back up.

It’s not necessarily what you’d expect from a major-league player, especially in contrast with the vibrant, boisterous energy of guys like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and George Springer, who seek out the cameras and welcome attention.

But Tapia’s competitive mindset immediately matches that of the Blue Jays’ loudest stars.

“Expect many great things from me and this team,” Tapia said ahead of Opening Day. “We’re going to be champions this year. We’re going to bring this accomplishment (to fans) so we can make them very happy.”

It’s an ambitious declaration for a newcomer, and one that further endears Tapia to his coaches and teammates.

“That’s a great attitude,” said Rivera. “Because he knows how hard we’ve worked. We’ve been working really hard since spring training and we all have the same goal.”

That commitment was in full force on Saturday, when Tapia made his Blue Jays regular-season debut in the 4-3 win over the Texas Rangers. Playing left field and batting eighth, Tapia reached first base on a fielder’s choice, with Santiago Espinal on deck.

Espinal launched a hard-hit double to centre field, and Tapia rounded second and third with ease before sliding head-first – in an unusually dramatic fashion, actually – to score the Blue Jays’ winning run in the bottom of the sixth.

Tapia then laid down a bunt in his next at-bat to advance a runner, coming pretty close to beating the throw to first.

“I love that stuff,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “Everybody gave him five when he came into the (dugout). I didn’t call it, he did it on his own.”

That’s what the Blue Jays expect from their fourth outfielder. Tapia isn’t known for his power and, like he showed on Saturday, has a tendency to ground out a lot. But he’s an above-average defender and a valuable baserunner. He’s also a left-handed batter, a trait that the Blue Jays have lacked since last season.

With the arrival of Bradley Zimmer from the Cleveland Guardians, the Jays’ outfield starts to look a little murkier, but Tapia’s versatility may put him in a decent position to get some playing time. Montoyo will likely use the 28-year-old on days when everyday offensive contributors get to DH. That was the case on Saturday and Sunday against the Rangers, when Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Springer were kept out of the defensive lineup.

Staying focused is the best way to ensure he’ll be ready whenever there’s an opening.

“He’s quiet, but he listens,” said Rivera. “The important thing is that, when you have an opportunity, that you listen to what we’re trying to do and how we want to play. And that’s what he’s been doing.”

As for that head-first slide into home plate, maybe it’s this team’s energy rubbing off on Tapia.

“Being here with these guys, it’s so special, because there’s so much adrenalin,” said Tapia. “These guys are always side by side, always helping each other out.”

Tapia collected his first hit as a Blue Jay on Sunday, a single in the ninth inning of a 12-6 loss to the Rangers in their series finale. He pointed to the dugout to celebrate with his teammates, like they all do after getting a hit, but stayed very stoic. The lopsided score against the Jays didn’t make it appropriate to showcase much more emotion than that.

When the hits start coming in winning days, it’ll be easier to see the effect the new scenery is having on the quiet, timid outfielder.

“We more or less transmit that energy to everyone here, the will to win that we have,” said Gurriel Jr. “He’s already feeling it.”

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