Rangers' Hamilton zones out stress
Slugger relaxes approach at the plate and adds pep to surging Texas offense
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Josh Hamilton has found his comfort level again. And that inner feeling has outward signs. It's visible in the way he jokes and plays around with his Texas Rangers teammates in the clubhouse. It's there in his confident, yet laid-back stroll toward home plate for another at-bat and in his big smile as he plays a game he clearly enjoys.
"He's having fun," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said.
Few things are more fun than a leisurely trip around the bases, something Hamilton experienced in the first two games of this three-game set with Oakland.
Hamilton hit a two-run homer that briefly gave the Rangers the lead Tuesday, only to see a perplexing ninth inning send the game to extra innings and an eventual loss. But Hamilton pounded another two-run shot -- all 427 feet of it -- to right-center Wednesday. This time, Hamilton's blast helped start an offensive onslaught in a 10-1 Rangers win. Hamilton, who does not normally hit well in day games, managed two hits in Thursday's 2-1, 12-inning win. He had a single in the 12th that moved Michael Young to scoring position. Young scored the winning run on Vladimir Guerrero's single.
Hamilton, who has four homers this month, is starting to get his power stroke back, tying Guerrero and Nelson Cruz for the team lead with seven.
"I'm not trying to do it, and that's why it's happening," Hamilton said before Thursday's win. "If I just worry about squaring the ball up, things will take care of themselves. That's my focus, and I'm comfortable with that."
That comfortable feeling has led to improved play from Hamilton the past three weeks. He's hitting .326 (30-for-92) with seven homers -- his entire total for the season -- 20 RBIs and even a couple of stolen bases in his past 21 games.
It's a resurgence that has paralleled the success of his team. Since a six-game losing streak through New York and Boston, Texas has won 15 of its past 21 games. It's the best mark in the majors in that span. The Rangers sit in first place in the American League West by two games at 20-15 as they visit the Toronto Blue Jays for a three-game series this weekend.
Hamilton, like the rest of the Rangers' offense, picked up the pace during this seven-game homestand. The Rangers went 6-1 and Hamilton was 10-for-33 with three homers, nine RBIs and seven runs scored.
He's getting much better results after a slow start. Hamilton hit just .205 (9-for-44) with no homers and three RBIs in the first 13 games of the season as the Rangers dipped to 5-8 and last in the AL West. Hamilton didn't take advantage of opportunities to drive in runs and was inconsistent.
But he started to hit some hard outs in New York, and in the second game at Fenway Park, he had three hits, including his first homer of the season. That helped get him started on his current solid streak.
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He knows there are still parts of his game that need improvement. He's still striking out more than he'd like -- a team-high 30 times -- but he also has 14 walks, second most on the team. He's batting below .200 against left-handed pitchers so far this season.
But he's putting the work in and seeing results.
"I don't have any stress," Hamilton said. "If I go 0-for-2 or 0-for-4, I don't worry about it. Mentally, I've been able to move on from tough games. That's something I wasn't able to do last year."
He did a better job of it in 2008, when he put up career numbers that included the memorable Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium. He firmly believes he can put up those kind of statistics on a regular basis.
"I think I'm better than that," Hamilton said. "I went through a couple of down months. Why can't I have a season where I don't have down times that are that long? I think 130 RBIs is a good mark. I wanted to hit 100 and after that wanted 130. I think I'm capable of more than 32 homers and that I can bat .300."
That magical season a few years ago seems a little farther in the rearview mirror now. Even the stadium where Hamilton captured the baseball world is nearly reduced to rubble.
Meanwhile, Hamilton's encore season never materialized. He changed his swing in spring training and never found a groove, eventually going back to his old one. He played in just 89 games because of a left rib cage strain, a partial tear of his abdominal muscle and a pinched nerve in his back. He spent plenty of time on the disabled list and couldn't offer much in production, finishing with 10 homers, 54 RBIs and a .268 batting average.
When he did play, he fretted over the bad at-bats or his inability to drive in runs in key situations. He would cloud his mind with all the possible mistakes he was making and put additional pressure on himself.
"I'm treating the season like I treated spring training," Hamilton said. "I always say I'm going to do that, but once the season starts I get stressed. But the last few weeks, it is like spring training. There, you can relax and not worry about stuff, and I've taken that into the season."
"I've noticed that presence sometimes doesn't even mean hits," Hamilton said.
He notes that it's doing whatever is needed -- a well-placed ground ball that moves runners over, a sacrifice fly that scores a run or simply grinding out an at-bat to work a pitcher. He even managed to get a runner home without doing anything but waiting with his bat cocked at home plate.
"I've had a few wild pitches thrown while I'm up there and a runner is at third," Hamilton said. "If I can stay away from swinging at stuff outside the zone and shrink my zone, it means the pitcher has to make key pitches."
That's been Hamilton's biggest focus with hitting coach Clint Hurdle. He wants to avoid making too many swings at pitches that aren't in his hitting area.
His other focus is becoming a producer with runners in scoring position. He didn't do much of that the first few weeks of the season but has started to turn that around. In fact, he's now 9-for-33 with 14 RBIs with runners in scoring position.
"His challenge is to find the consistency," Daniels said.
Hamilton has also settled into his defensive role in left field. He had early struggles there, too, such as overrunning a ball in Boston that cost the Rangers two runs and helped the Red Sox rally for a victory. But he's gotten used to that area of the field and has shown a solid arm.
"I feel good overall and I feel like I'm more patient at the plate," Hamilton said. "It helps to have Vlad behind me. I just have to keep working and getting better."
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