SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — J.J. Hardy remembers his first spring batting practice session with the Baltimore Orioles last February, when he stepped into the batter’s box and started spraying line drives to the opposite field.
“What are you doing?” Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley asked him.
Hardy told him he was doing what the Twins asked him to do in his lone season in Minnesota in 2010.
“That was my approach for the Twins,” Hardy said on Monday. “And then Presley’s approach was `I want you to drive the ball. I want you to hit homers. I want you to do what you did in `07 and `08 with Milwaukee.”‘
Once Hardy was given the green light, all he did was drive. The shortstop slugged a career-high 30 homers for the Orioles last season and matched a career high with 80 RBIs in just 129 games, a banner season that earned him a three-year, $22.25 million contract extension practically before his first year in Baltimore was half over.
The power surge wasn’t completely out of character for Hardy, who hit 26 home runs in 2007 and 24 in 2008 for the Brewers. Then came the injuries, including a nagging right wrist that limited him to 101 games with the Twins in 2010.
That injury, coupled with playing in spacious Target Field and the Twins’ instructions to hit the other way resulted in just six homers and 38 RBIs that season.
“My first round of BP with the Twins, I was trying to (pull the ball), and Rod Carew and those guys call me over and say, `That’s not we want. We want line drives the other way,”‘ Hardy said. “So that was my approach for the Twins.”
It’s a nearly identical story to that of slugger David Ortiz, who struggled with injuries and acclimating to the Twins’ emphasis on using the whole field. Then he moved to Boston, focused on pulling the ball, and became one of the most feared power hitters in the game.
“It just changed my approach,” Hardy said. “When I’d roll over a ball because I tried to drive it, (Orioles coaches) said,
`Good, good. That’s all right. That’s going to happen.’ “If I rolled over a ball with the Twins, it was like, `Stay
through it. Got to go the other way.”‘
Hardy was not criticizing the Twins’ methods. They have certainly worked for a team that has won six AL Central titles
since 2002 and groomed Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau into two of the game’s best hitters.
“Whatever issues kept him from reaching the level he did last year, I’ve got some suspicions about it,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “But we’re just going to move forward. This guy’s sharp, committed, very intelligent.”
Even though hitting homers had been a part of Hardy’s game before last season, hitting 30 came as a surprise to pretty much everyone involved. He missed most of the first month of the season with a strained left oblique. Once he returned on May 10, he started swinging for the fences.
“I’d be the first to tell you I didn’t know how good he was,” Showalter said. “Every day I kept going, `Good gracious.’ This guy missed a month of the season last year.”
Showalter thinks it was about “taking away all that doubt, that someone’s not going to be constantly” in his ear when he rolled over a pitch that he was trying to put into the seats.
“When I swing and miss or when I do something where I’m trying to drive the ball, they’re saying, `Good, good, good,”‘ Hardy said. “That’s all right. That’s going to happen.”
And the 29-year-old is doing more than just adding some punch to the lineup. He was a defensive-minded shortstop coming up through the minors, and never really turned into an offensive force until 2007. He may not be the most dynamic player at the position, but he’s as steady as they come.
“He’s not going to be flashy,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “But if you want a ball hit to somebody to make an out, I’ll take
a hit to him every time.”
Hardy is amazed by how quickly things can change. He reported to Orioles camp in 2011 coming off of a down season and uncertain of his future. A year later, he’s one of the most valuable members of a young team fighting in a stacked division, occupying a parcel of real estate at Camden Yards that Cal Ripken Jr. once called home.
“I feel like it’s a big position for the Orioles with their past shortstops,” Hardy said. “It’s nice to be one of them. If I
can keep doing well for the next three years, who knows, maybe my name will be mentioned with some of those other names.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)