ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. - Munenori Kawasaki plays the game with joy and class and humility, and he leaves an indelible mark on this Blue Jays team as he heads to Buffalo, optioned out to make room for the return of Jose Reyes.
"The fans and the guys in here basically fell in love with this guy," Mark Buehrle said Tuesday after the Blue Jays' 5-1 loss to the Rays. "He came here and did everything anybody asked him to do and more.
"I love the guy. After the game, Gibby (Blue Jays manager John Gibbons) called us together to tell us he was getting sent down. I don't think I've ever seen that before. Usually you come in the next day and see the empty locker and that's how you find out a guy got sent down."
That's how much Kawasaki was appreciated.
In two months, he brought more smiles to more faces than any Blue Jay in recent memory, just by being himself. Gibbons was clear in his announcement that, one way or another, the 32-year-old shortstop will be back with this team this season.
"These were the best fans and the best teammates," Kawasaki said through an English-speaking Japanese TV reporter. "For two months it's been an incredible experience for me. I appreciate everybody from the fans and the players who helped me through it."
That he became a cult figure among Blue Jay fans was astonishing to him.
"I can't believe it," he said. "I absolutely can't believe how I have been accepted by the players and the fans. For this one strange Japanese guy to come here and be accepted the way I have is unbelievable."
Lest anyone think this is some sort of swansong for him, Kawasaki was quick to squelch that thought.
"It's not as if I've died. I'm still a baseball player. It's just that tomorrow the field will be different but I'm still around and ready to help the team when they need it. It's been a terrific experience. I really appreciate everybody and I love everybody.
"I'm just one lucky guy to be able to play the game of baseball and to play the game in this environment. I don't feel like I came here to show anybody anything other than that I love the game of baseball and I'm going to continue to do that."
Gibbons appreciates having four lefthanders among his eight relievers. It's a luxury that makes situational decisions easier.
"It's not like you have just one bullet and you have to wait for that one perfect spot to use the lefty," Gibbons said. "Late in the game, say against (Chris) Davis of Baltimore, you can burn a guy for one batter if you need to and not be using up all your options.
"The other thing is that they all have the ability to get righthanded hitters out, too. You don't always have to match up."
JOE A JOSE FAN
When Jose Bautista nearly threw out Jose Molina at the plate from deep right-centre field in the fourth inning, nobody was more stunned than Rays manager Joe Maddon.
"I was fixated on the throw," said Maddon. "It was unbelievable. How does he do that, throw it right on the money from that far away?"
Beaten to the plate by the throw, only an athletic slide away from J.P. Arencibia's tag allowed Molina to score.