MINNEAPOLIS - The first thing you notice about Jose Bautista's swing is that it never changes.
No matter the count, the score, the inning of the game, each one is unleashed with the same go-for-broke ferocity of John Daly on the tee box with a driver in his hands.
Maybe that's because each time the Toronto Blue Jays slugger lets loose, he's not just looking to put another one in the seats. With each mighty cut, he's taking a swing at the skeptics and cynics who think the story of one of the most improbable breakout seasons in recent memory might be just a little too good to be true.
The Dominican journeyman started the day Saturday with 54 home runs, a staggering number in this new era of tougher steroid testing and more dominant pitching.
He is the first player to top 50 homers in a season since Prince Fielder and Alex Rodriguez did it in 2007, despite never having hit more than 16 in any of his previous six seasons.
"I'd like to hit one every at-bat, but that's not realistic," Bautista said with a smile.
It's pretty darn close. Bautista is going deep once every 10.3 at-bats. He has 12 more than second-place Albert Pujols and a club-record nine multihomer games this season, most recently on Thursday night at Minnesota's spacious Target Field, with Jim Thome watching from the other dugout.
If anybody knows what it takes to hit 50 home runs in a season, it's Thome. He hit 52 for Cleveland in 2002 and currently ranks eighth on the career list with 589 homers.
"He's had a wonderful year," Thome said. "When you have a year like that a lot of things go right. We call it, as hitters, a magical year. When you get pitches to hit, you hit 'em out front and you get lift on them. It's an awesome thing to watch."
Yet in this day of steroid scandals and disgraced sluggers, there are plenty who wonder if something other than magic is fueling Bautista's uncharacteristically powerful season.
His out-of-nowhere emergence has elicited far more suspicion than fan fare, with two eyebrows raised for every one jaw dropped.
Bautista knows what is being whispered in the corners of clubhouses, through the corridors of ballparks and on the bar stools at sports bars across the country. He adamantly denies using performance-enhancing drugs.
"I understand (the question) because of the history of what happened in the past," Bautista told reporters after hitting his 50th home run earlier this month. "Those days are gone. It's been six years since we have a new program in place. It seems to be working. It's the most strict in all of professional sports. I don't see why those questions really come up. The only reason why is the history of what happened in the past."
Maybe that is why Bautista has been able to sustain his long-ball prowess. The rumors don't bother him. The questions don't annoy him. The media doesn't distract him.
"It's just something I have to deal with, the questions, and I have all season long," he said. "It's not something that I'm going to back down from because I have nothing to hide. So I'm not worried."
So, where in the heck did this come from?
Bautista has played for five teams in seven seasons. After bouncing around from Baltimore to Tampa Bay to Kansas City in his first few years, he hit 16 homers for Pittsburgh in 2006 and 15 in each of the next two seasons.
Now, all of a sudden, he has become one of only 16 players in major league history hit at least 54 in a season, putting him on the same list as Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and Ken Griffey Jr.
Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa sit atop that list. McGwire has admitted to using steroids during his career and Sosa and Bonds have been dogged by allegations.
"Considering his previous high, yes, I think everybody's been surprised," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said before mentioning Brady Anderson's jump from 16 homers to 50 in 1996.
"You never know what's going to happen in the game," Gardenhire said. "That's the great thing about it. A guy can all of a sudden find his swing and start banging them into the seats and that's what he's done. Good for him. He's a great young guy. He's been moving around a little bit. A year that he'll never forget."
Having grown used to being asked about it, Bautista quickly offers up an explanation. When he came to Toronto last season, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy went to work on his approach.
They got Bautista to start his swing earlier in the pitcher's delivery, which he said has allowed him to square up on the ball much more effectively than he did in the past.
He also hits third in the Blue Jays batting order, in front of Vernon Wells. So he sees better pitches than when he was hitting eighth in Pittsburgh, one spot ahead of the pitcher.
Oh, and one other thing — Gaston has encouraged Bautista to attack each pitch with the verve of a beer-league softball player. He may only hit .262, but his 54 homers, 124 RBIs and .625 slugging percentage more than make up for that.
"When the ball's in the zone, hit it hard," he said.
Boy, does he ever.
Bautista hit 10 homers in the final month last season and hasn't stopped since.
His first home run on Thursday — a grand slam in the seventh inning — came after he flailed at a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded. He sent the next pitch soaring into the third deck at Target Field. He is only the second player this season to put a ball that high up in left field.
"I never get tired of seeing them," Gaston said.
He hasn't let the doubts get to him, but also hasn't allowed himself to stop and marvel at his accomplishment.
There are still a few at-bats left in the season, a few more opportunities to let one fly.
"I'm not thinking about anything," he said. "I'm just keeping the focus on the approach and having good at-bats has allowed me to be successful and consistent. I'm not going to change a thing. I'll just reflect on everything once the season is over."
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