June 13, 2012
Vols in the Pros Series:
Gomes Breaking Barriers to Make 'The Show'
By Brian Rice
ATLANTA - Three short years. That is all it took for J.P. Arencibia to leave an indelible mark on the Tennessee baseball program and, upon completing that task, all it took for him to reach the highest level of baseball, the Major Leagues.
As the 21st overall pick in the 2007 MLB draft, Arencibia left Tennessee as part of a list that now includes 15 first-round picks in Vol Baseball history.
A three-year starter at Rocky Top from 2005-2007, Arencibia was a member of Tennessee's 2005 College World Series team. His quick rise through the Blue Jays' system now has the former Vol in his third season with Toronto and second as the team's starting catcher.
A FAST RISE
A year into his professional career, Arencibia was a Class-A Florida State League All-Star for the Dunedin Blue Jays, but didn't get a chance to celebrate the honor with his teammates as he was called up to Double-A shortly after the All-Star break. Arencibia spent his second full season as a pro in Triple-A Las Vegas in 2009.
"I think, obviously, coming out of college I'm a little more mature, quicker to get the opportunity, especially being a higher pick," Arencibia said. "I knew I had chance to move pretty fast, but I moved a lot faster than I thought I was (going to)."
In 2010, he started out right back in Las Vegas, where all he did was earn Most Valuable Player honors for the Pacific Coast League after hitting .301 with 32 home runs and 85 RBIs.
Claiming MVP honors for baseball's second-highest division would not be the highlight of Arencibia's 2010 baseball season, however.
AN HISTORIC DEBUT
On August 6, 2010, Blue Jays catcher John Buck left a game with the New York Yankees with a thumb injury after being stuck by a foul ball off the bat of Alex Rodriguez. The injury led manager Cito Gaston to make the call to Las Vegas to bring up Arencibia, a product of Westminster Christian High School in Miami, the same school that produced Rodriguez.
To say Arencibia seized the opportunity would be a massive understatement.
Batting ninth in the lineup against the Tampa Bay Rays, Arencibia came to the plate in the bottom of the second inning. The first pitch he saw in the Major Leagues ended up in the seats beyond the left field fence, a two-run shot that made him just the 28th player in Major League history to homer on the first pitch he saw.
After a double in the third and a single in the fifth, Arencibia came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth inning with a chance to hit for the cycle, needing a triple to complete the feat. Instead, Arencibia clubbed his second home run of the game, a towering shot to the opposite field in right.
That second home run prompted the Rogers Centre crowd to call for the rookie to emerge from the dugout after circlimg the bases for a curtain call. Arencibia obliged, a moment punctuating one of the best debuts in Major League history.
"It was crazy," Arencibia said. "I could never expect it. I was having a lot of success down in Triple-A. I was leading all of baseball in home runs, so when I came up I was feeling really good. I had looked forward to the opportunity. I could never imagine hitting my first pitch of the Major Leagues out of the park. It was a pretty special day."
He finished the day 4-for-5 with two home runs, three runs scored, three RBIs and 11 total bases. He recorded a hit in his first four Major League at-bats and became the first catcher in history to hit two homers and record four hits in a Major League debut. The last position player to accomplish that feat was Columbus' Charlie Reilly on Oct. 9, 1889.
When Buck returned from the disabled list, Arencibia went back down to Las Vegas to finish out his MVP season in AAA. He returned to Toronto when the Major League rosters expanded on September 1.
MAKING THE TEAM
A little over four months after Arencibia's Major League debut, Buck signed a free agent contract with the Florida Marlins, meaning Arencibia's promising future was now his present.
"It was huge," Arencibia said of the opening. "I knew that after my year in Triple-A, they were going to give me the opportunity to start, and that's what happened."
As the Opening Day starter behind the plate for Toronto in 2011, Arencibia continued his habit of strong debuts, going 3-for-4 with two home runs, a triple and five RBIs. Over his first full season, he hit .219 with 23 home runs and 78 RBIs in 129 games.
For Arencibia, the time spent at the plate was not as difficult an adjustment as the time spent behind it. The challenge of being a 25-year old rookie catcher managing a Major League pitching staff is a daunting task.
"Last year was tough," he said. "Everything you see for the first time in person. I could sit there and watch film all day and prepare for games, but until you're there and you're live and seeing the guy in the box and you're working with your pitchers and opposing hitters it's not the same.
"That experience was valuable and it's been a lot better adjustment this year just being more comfortable with managing the game and knowing the situations and knowing when I need to go out and talk to the pitcher and when I don't need to go out there and if I need to say something or if I don't."
GETTING CLOSER TO HOME
Playing for an American League team means that Arencibia rarely gets to play near his hometown of Miami or his offseason home in Nashville, but Interleague play this summer has brought Arencibia and the Blue Jays closer to both of those homes. Playing the Braves in Atlanta last weekend, Arencibia heard from Vol fans that had made the short drive down I-75 for the game.
"There are a lot of Tennessee fans out here," Arencibia said of the crowd in Atlanta. "I was getting some `Hey, you're a Blue Jay but I'm a Vol fan' and that's pretty cool. Obviously the Vol nation is a big one."
A trip to Miami to face the Marlins later this month to close out Interleague play will mark the first time Arencibia will have the opportunity to play professionally in the city in which he grew up.
"I get to Tampa (to play the AL East Rival Rays), and that's the closest I get," he said. "But Tampa is not home. Being able to go home is pretty cool to have all my family and friends come watch me play."