Josh Hamilton learning about patience
Rangers slugger eager to crush baseballs, but he's not getting many hittable pitches
NEW YORK -- Josh Hamilton is a big league slugger. He lives to crush baseballs. Preferably fastballs.
He's pounded so many, so often in this bounce-back season that only Bronx Bomber Lou Gehrig in 1934 can boast an equally otherworldly stat line of at least a .359 batting average, 40 doubles, 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.
If not for missing 24 games in September with two fractured ribs, Hamilton possibly could have reached 40 home runs (he tied a career high with 32) and almost assuredly would have surpassed 200 hits (he finished with 186) for the first time in his career.
So, yes, it is a shock to the system to see Hamilton's postseason numbers for the Texas Rangers through seven games: .130 batting average, no doubles, one home run and four RBIs.
Now seven games deep into the postseason, Hamilton believes he has it all figured out as he prepares to face New York Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte, baseball's winningest postseason pitcher, in a pivotal Game 3 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium.
Plain and simple, Hamilton's not seeing pitches to hit. He's not getting many fastballs. He's getting mainly breaking balls, most of them out of the strike zone. His substandard batting average and production are a byproduct of opposing pitchers wanting nothing to do with the left-handed mismatch and Hamilton's acceptance in the Division Series to play by their rules.
"They are up," Hamilton said of the number of off-speed pitches he's seeing now compared with the regular season. "Even during the season, the off-speed pitches were there, but they were trying to throw them for strikes. They're not really trying to throw them for strikes now. They're trying to get me to chase, so that's been the biggest thing in the playoffs. Why throw it over the plate if you're going to swing at it?"
Tampa Bay Rays pitchers fed Hamilton a steady diet of off-speed pitches, and Hamilton finished the series with three times as many strikeouts (six) as hits (two). Hamilton refused to acknowledge any discomfort with his ribs, rather blaming his own desire to crush baseballs instead of refining the far more delicate art of letting juicy curveballs drift harmlessly out of strike zone and taking the free pass.
Laying off is an at-bat to at-bat struggle.
"That's one of the things, with the time I missed being out of the game, I'm still learning," said Hamilton, who was out of baseball for several years because of substance abuse. "It's a learning process for me. [Being selective at the plate] is just something I continue to work at. I resort back from time to time, but hopefully make the adjustment and get out of it as quickly as I can."
He couldn't help himself in the five-game series against Tampa Bay. Hamilton said he saw only two or three breaking balls for strikes in the ALDS, "and I hit one of them to the warning track." Noting his low playoff numbers, Hamilton figured the Yankees would employ a similar strategy (which they have), and it would be up to him to change his approach.
"For me, making adjustments, it could be a blessing in disguise. Maybe I welcome a lot of breaking stuff," Hamilton said. "But the thing is, the breaking stuff has to be for strikes. If it's for strikes, I can hit it. If it's not, I need to let it go."
CC Sabathia got a called strike on his first pitch to Hamilton, a curveball, in Game 1. Hamilton fouled off the next pitch, a fastball. Sabathia's third offering, Hamilton said, was a mid-80s slider that stayed over the middle of the plate.
He smoked it just over the wall in the right-field corner to give the Rangers a 3-0 lead after three batters.
Yankees Game 2 starter Phil Hughes paid close attention. While Hughes got torched by the rest of a Rangers lineup that seems to be peaking at the right time, he certainly wasn't going to let Hamilton rake him.
Hughes walked him in each of his first three at-bats. In the first inning, Hughes threw three fastballs and four curves. Hamilton stayed away from a curve in the dirt for ball two and laid off two fastballs out of the zone to work the walk on eight pitches. Hughes walked him intentionally in the second inning to pitch to Vladimir Guerrero instead with the bases loaded. In his third at-bat, Hughes walked him on five pitches and didn't throw a single fastball.
"I think it's pretty obvious that they weren't going to get beat by Josh," said Rangers outfielder David Murphy, who tagged Hughes for a homer and a double that ended Hughes' day after four innings, matching Sabathia in Game 1. "They didn't really give him anything to hit. But he's not our only guy. We've got a great meat of our lineup with [Nelson] Cruz, [Ian] Kinsler, Vladdy, Mike Young. That's a pretty good lineup to have."
Determined to remain patient, Hamilton gritted his teeth, gripped his bat and kept it on his shoulder. He walked four times in all, twice intentionally. He walked just three times in 18 plate appearances in the ALDS.
"Yeah, I've gotten better at it," Hamilton said of staying patient. "I could have had five walks, but man, you just want to hit when you're up there. It's hard to control the reins once in a while."
He couldn't in the sixth inning, when he decided he couldn't stand it any longer and wanted to crush a baseball during his fourth at-bat. Reliever David Robertson threw six pitches. Only his second offering was a fastball. His final four pitches were all curves, 80 mph or slower, and he struck out Hamilton swinging.
Part of Hamilton's desire to crush baseballs is his determination to be the engine of the offense. When the Rangers' bats dipped into hibernation for periods of the season, Hamilton said he often piled pressure on himself to carry the load.
"I shouldn't have, but me, sometimes it's human nature. I want to do too much, want to do a little extra," Hamilton said. "So, yeah, there was some times during the season where I felt like I needed to step up and needed to get more done than I was doing. But a lot of times when I do that I would end up worse than I was."
He's learning, though. With Kinsler and Cruz hovering around .400, Young getting his groove back in the ALCS and the bottom of the order holding its own, Hamilton is realizing he doesn't have to chase curveballs to try to make something happen. By walking, he can make something happen for others.
So he'll be on off-speed alert against Pettitte in Game 3, doing his best to grit his teeth and grip his bat and keep it on his shoulder if those off-speed pitches are also off the plate.
"There'll come a time in the series," Hamilton said, "where they'll try to sneak something by me, and I'll just have to be ready for that."