Publication date: 03-17-2006

Freel confident slump is over
Says he's been trying too hard
By Marc Lancaster / Post staff reporter

SARASOTA, Fla. - Ryan Freel already is referring to his spring-long slump in the past tense.

Two hits in 30 at-bats heading into the game he was about to play Thursday? Done, over, forgotten.

"I'm glad it happened now and it's out of the way," declared the Reds' frenetic utilityman. "I have an approach now, I have a game plan when I go up there hitting. Before, I was trying to do too much with the ball and trying to get five hits in one at-bat."

It's an unusual situation Freel finds himself in this spring. After a decade of charging headfirst into every game as a matter of professional survival, the 30-year-old finally has some job security. He signed a two-year deal with the Reds in December, and he won't have to prove anything in spring training to ensure a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Whereas the pressure of grinding for that last spot or two on the bench throughout March might get to most players, Freel is open to the possibility that the absence of competition caused him to tighten up.

"I've thought about that, because every year I've come in here I've hit (.300)-plus," he said. "I'm always hitting unbelievable, I've always started off on fire. This year, I get this contract and I feel like there's a lot of high expectations. Here I am, already established, I know I'm going to be on the team and I know the things I've done in the big leagues and that I can help this team win. But I felt like I was trying to do too much right off the bat."

Within a span of five minutes Thursday morning, Freel went from insisting he was "absolutely not" discouraged by his struggles at the plate to admitting that he was, but that he ultimately wasn't worried about it.

He shouldn't be, said Jerry Narron. And what does the manager think of Freel's futility so far?

"Don't care," he said flatly. "It'll work itself out. Guys that have had success at the major league level, chances are they're going to have success again. Spring training numbers are way overrated - both good and bad."

The fact remains, baseball players' existence is based largely on their statistics. Human nature makes it difficult to completely ignore the numbers, no matter what time of year it is. It takes confidence nurtured by experience to realize there are other, more important matters on which to focus during spring training.

That was part of clubhouse sage David Weathers' message to Freel on Thursday. The veteran reliever pointed out how bad he was in April last year. Left unsaid was that he pulled out of it to have a solid season.

"It ain't how you start," said Weathers.

As much sense as that makes, it's still counterintuitive to Freel. He needs that carrot out there, and he's always had a very basic lure to follow - play well, or risk being sent down. He's still trying to come up with a new version of that all-or-nothing motivation.

Although he has become one of the more valuable utility players in the game, he'd still like to be the Reds' everyday second baseman. That doesn't appear likely, simply because the Reds prefer to have Freel available at five different positions on any given day. It's a job description that unexpectedly got him into 143 games two years ago, and there's plenty to be said for that.

Deep down, Freel understands that, but he's got to have something to fight for. This spring, he's mostly been fighting himself.

"I'm going to play," he said. "But I always want more. I want to be in there every day, somehow and some way helping this team, because I know I can. I want to be able to do that, and I think I was trying too hard, and that's where I get out of my game.

"It's real easy to do that for a person like me who's just so intense and so 'You've gotta do this!' Baseball's not like that. It's not like football. It's more relaxed, and you don't have to be so intense. There's a fine line there and I think I got out of it a little bit."

Early Thursday afternoon against the Pirates, Freel looked like he was still out of it. Pittsburgh lefty Zach Duke struck him out his first two times to the plate. But in his final at-bat, Freel doubled to left. That bumped his average from .067 to .091, for what it's worth.

He's got to start somewhere.

"I might not get another hit the rest of the spring, but as long as I have good at-bats and have a good approach, I don't care," Freel said. "If I can stay with that, I'm going to get my hits. I've done it for three years now."