BRADENTON, Florida - Adam Lind stepped in to the batter's box with runners on first and second in the first inning of the Blue Jays 5-4 loss to the Pirates on Wednesday. He roped a single to right field, scoring Emilio Bonifacio, and ended up 2-3 on the day. For the moment, Lind raised his Grapefruit League batting average to .464.
Lind, 29, is hoping what's old is new again. The Blue Jays are, too, and are pleased with his early season hitting approach.
"He just got fast," said hitting coach Chad Mottola. "He lost his natural rhythm. He's always been a whole field guy, using all fields and, as he got fast and he got in to a little bit of a slump, he lost his natural rhythm and we just had to slow him down."
The process of slowing down Lind began under the bright lights of Las Vegas – not the metaphorical bright lights of the big leagues. Lind, hitting .186 last May 17, was demoted to Triple-A in an attempt to recapture the swing and approach which contributed to his breakout 2009 season. That year, Lind hit 35 home runs and 114 RBI.
In Lind's mind, it may as well have been 1909. By last season, he was rushing even the walk from the on-deck circle to the batter's box. He was offering at pitches that looked to him far better than they were. Lind wasn't "seeing the ball," a phrase often used by hitting coaches.
"You expand the zone because you're tense, your head's moving," said Lind. "Pitches appear better than they actually are; seem harder (to hit) than they actually are. When you slow it down, the pitches don't seem as good."
A requirement of playing first base in the American League East, and baseball in general, is offensive production. It's non-negotiable. Lind's struggles reached a point where the Blue Jays determined he couldn't be fixed at the major league level.
"The thing that was nice about going down (to Las Vegas) was that he could expose himself," said Mottola. "We weren't really worried about numbers from day one. I said 'Hey, we're going to invest some time down here and throw your numbers out and get you to where you can slow the game down and take some pitches' Unfortunately in the big leagues when you're hitting .100 and you want to hurry up and do things, you can't afford to take pitches. When you're in a slump, every time you take a pitch, you feel like it's the fastball you could have crushed so what was nice down there is we were able to invest some at-bats and time without any pressure around him."
Lind caused a minor stir early in spring training when he claimed to have received mixed messages from last year's manager and hitting coach, John Farrell and Dwayne Murphy. He said he was told to be more aggressive in one breath, to be more conservative in the next. General manager Alex Anthopoulos refuted Lind's remarks. Excuse or not, for the player, perception was reality.
New manager John Gibbons was the club's skipper when Lind broke in. He remembered Lind being as effective hitting the ball to left field - the other way - as he was pulling pitches.
"When I saw him a little bit in Kansas City, when I was there (as bench coach,) it looked like he was strictly pulling the ball," said Gibbons. "When he's using the whole field, that's when he's really dangerous because he can hit home runs the other way. He's really focused and if we get a big year out of him, we have a chance to be really, really good."
A key to Lind's turnaround, if he has one, is Mottola. The two forged a mutual respect, first as minor league teammates and then as Mottola ascended the ranks as a coach in the Blue Jays' system.
"He recently played so he knows how this generation is, so to speak," said Lind. "He thinks outside the box."
Gibbons hasn't yet decided whether Lind will be his everyday designated hitter. If Lind's numbers don't improve against left-handed pitching (.202, two home runs in 2012), he'll sit in favour of a right-handed bat.
Why is this spring different? Maybe it's all for naught. The calendar will have to advance before we know for sure. But there are signs, seen by the hitting coach and only a few others, which suggest Lind is beginning to resemble the hitter he once was.
"He's come back to the dugout probably three or four times this spring already and he's taken some pitches where he wasn't in position to see the ball, where he'd just kind of wave at it in the past," said Mottola. "What's encouraging is his numbers but what's also encouraging is the slow breaking balls he's laid off of and he actually gets more excited about laying off some pitches rather than getting a hit saying, 'Wait, I can finally see that pitch again.' The results are actually a part of the process of him seeing the ball again."
- Melky Cabrera is a "leftfielder with a rightfielder's arm," as baseball people will sometimes say, and he showed it in the third inning on Wednesday. The Pirates had runners on first and second with two outs. Gaby Sanchez lined a single to left and Cabrera came up throwing, gunning down Russell Martin as he tried to score from second.
- Former Blue Jay Travis Snider, who's battling with Jose Tabata to be the Pirates' starting rightfielder, held court with the Toronto media before Wednesday's game. Snider says he has enough on his plate now to worry about how things ended in Toronto.
"Really remaining with my focus on the present," said Snider. "Learning from those experiences from the past, really for me I'm taking the next step in my career of being here, in a new scene, a new situation, a new group of guys with the same focus and the same mindset that I've been developing for the last five or six years."
The Blue Jays traded Snider to Pittsburgh for Brad Lincoln last July 30.
- Pirates' catcher Russell Martin, 30, was greeted with boos from the large Canadian contingent at McKechnie Field on Wednesday. Martin, born in East York, Ontario, caused a stir when he pulled out of the World Baseball Classic just days before Team Canada was to gather in Arizona. Prior to his decision not to play at the WBC, he'd indicated a desire to play shortstop for Canada, a position he hadn't played since he was a teenager.
- The Blue Jays return to Dunedin on Thursday for their fourth and final meeting of the spring with the Yankees. Josh Johnson, coming off an 11 up-11 down performance against the Braves last Friday, gets the start and will be on a 60-pitch/four inning limit. Reliever Esmil Rogers will follow Johnson and is expected to be stretched out for a two-inning outing. Brett Cecil is scheduled to pitch one inning. Jose Ramirez will pitch for the Yankees.