Hamilton Shines in Spring: Reds Outfielder Playing Well As He Tries to Restart Career
Mar 10, 05:38 PM
By Scott Priestle, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Mar. 10--SARASOTA, Fla. -- The first pitch from Detroit Tigers reliever Fernando Rodney was a change-up, and Josh Hamilton swung too soon. Strike one. One pitch later, Rodney threw a fastball, and Hamilton waved at it too late. Strike two.
For a moment, Hamilton looked like a player who had been away from the game for most of the previous 4Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â½ years.
"Honestly, I felt like I was overmatched," he said. "Then I had to reassure myself: 'Hey, (Adam) Dunn just hit the ball off him and made it look easy. I can do that, too.' It just made me bear down and concentrate more and re-evaluate everything in my head."
After taking a pitch for ball two, Hamilton looked for another change-up, got one and lined it into the gap in right center for a triple.
In eight games for the Cincinnati Reds this spring, Hamilton is 11 for 23 with four extra-base hits, four walks and only three strikeouts. Though he played only 15 games the previous four seasons, he has shown few signs of rust at the plate or in the field.
"I really expected him to be overanxious," manager Jerry Narron said. "He's taken pitches extremely well. He's used the entire field. He's been very impressive."
After the Reds selected Hamilton in the Rule 5 draft in December, Narron and his brother Johnny -- who have known Hamilton for years -- worked with him a few times per week, hoping to hone the skills that were long dormant.
The Reds were intrigued by Hamilton's talent: he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft, and two years later Baseball America named him the top prospect in the minor leagues. But he was suspended for the 2003 to 2005 seasons because of a drug problem, and injuries bothered him other years. The Reds must keep him on the big-league roster all season or offer him back to Tampa Bay for $25,000, so there is some urgency to get Hamilton ready to at least fill a role on the bench.
Few could have expected him to get back to speed so quickly -- including Hamilton, who said he was "a little jumpy" at the plate during his first days facing live pitching. He has spent considerable time in the batting cage this spring with the Narrons and hitting coach Brook Jacoby.
"They just tell me to practice some things in the cage, then during the game get out there and swing the bat and play like I played in high school," he said, "just have fun."
It is rarely that easy. Players at all levels struggle to carry lessons from the cage to the field, where the pitches are tougher and the adrenaline pumps harder. Some never figure it out.
"He's not your average guy, talentwise," general manager Wayne Krivsky said with a smile.
Jerry Narron said Hamilton's skills are "as good as anybody in the game." Dunn has called him "the best baseball player I ever saw."
Hamilton has played well in right and center field. An inning before he hit the triple off Rodney on Thursday, he made a diving catch in shallow right field.
The toughest adjustment, he said, has been running the bases.
"Knowing the count, knowing the situation, knowing how many outs there are, knowing to freeze on a line drive, knowing when to tag up -- there's so much going on, so much involved in base running," he said. "Getting my leads again, seeing pitchers' pick-off moves, just getting that reaction back... "
With that in mind, Narron has played Hamilton more than anyone else this spring, to the point that Hamilton has been bothered by shin splints, an affliction most often seen in weekend warriors. Aside from the shin splints and the two ugly swings against Rodney, though, Hamilton has aced his baseball refresher course.
"I usually pick things up quick," he said. "I can't say I'm surprised. I worked hard in the offseason."