Hart attacks stamina issue: He hopes to avoid late-season fade
J.J. Hardy had just walked on four pitches to load the bases for the Milwaukee Brewers in the final game of the season against the Chicago Cubs, a game the Brewers had to win to clinch their first playoff berth in 26 years. And only one of those pitches Hardy saw was even border line.
So with the Brewers down a run in the seventh inning and the bases loaded, up stepped Corey Hart, whose struggles in September already had been documented. But he had yet to produce anything as bad as what followed.
Michael Wuertz threw Hart three consecutive sliders, all below the knees, each one farther away from Hart than the first. The final one ended up in the left batter’s box.
Hart flailed at all three, never coming close to touching one.
The Brewers, obviously, won the game and made the playoffs. But for Hart, that was the epitome of what the final month was like for him. He didn’t have a chance.
“I was tired,” Hart said, clearly remembering the at-bat. “If you play any sport, when you struggle, you try to find something to grab onto.
”I wasn’t really praying to get on or praying to get a hit. At that point, I was just praying that it would be in the strike zone and I could put it in play. That’s how bad it was.“
Take a look at Hart’s final numbers for last season. He hit .268 with 20 home runs, 91 runs batted in and 23 stolen bases. He led the team with 45 doubles, third-best in the National League. He was the franchise’s first player to have 20 homers and 20 steals in a season, doing it for the second consecutive year.
He also made the NL all-star team, winning the Final Vote fan balloting and proving his emergence as one of the league’s best right-fielders.
But September is what people remember. Hart looked tired, frustrated and like a man grasping for hope.
After hitting .299 in August, among the best averages of the regular starters, Hart plummeted and batted .173 with no homers, 10 RBI, three walks and 21 strikeouts in 98 September at-bats. He even had a nine-game stretch in which he had only two hits.
But Hart was just part of the problem as the team fell flat on its face during that final month, lost its lead in the wild-card race and manager Ned Yost lost his job.
”It happened to the core of our players in the same month,“ said Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum, the team’s interim manager for the final two weeks of the regular season. ”It wasn’t just Corey.“
Hart played 157 games last year, far more than in any other season in his life. He wore down and became fatigued. It was something he wouldn’t fess up to last season in the midst of his nosedive, but nearly five months removed from that brutal month, Hart can admit it.
”I was gassed,“ he said. ”But as a young guy with an ego, I went out there everyday. I had never played that many games in my career. I wasn’t personally ready for it.
“You find out as a player that it might benefit you to have a day off here and there. My body broke down at the end.”
Hart was so upset by his final month and his .231 average in the playoffs that he started his offseason workouts a week after the Brewers were eliminated by the Philadelphia Phillies. Normally he wouldn’t start until around Thanksgiving.
He wanted to get stronger physically to ensure he wouldn’t break down, but in a season as long as baseball’s, it is just as important to have mental endurance.
“That’s the thing about playing in the big leagues everyday,” Sveum said. “How do you handle that? Sometimes it’s more mental. Sometimes the pressures that go along with that and having a young family, you put more pressure on yourself to earn a contract and it snowballs into what we saw last year.”
Even with that final month, Hart produced last season. There is no question about that, but there was a question about how much money Hart would make this year. He and the team couldn’t agree on arbitration terms and went down to the 11th hour before settling on a one-year, $3.25 million deal, avoiding a hearing.
“I was dreading (a hearing) big-time,” Hart said. “You talk to guys who’ve gone through it and it’s never a good experience. Even if you win, it’s hard to get past the negativity.”
Luckily, he didn’t have to be beaten over the head anymore with his September numbers, which he said probably would have provided a lot of ammunition for the Brewers. Now his focus is on the upcoming season.
Hart’s swing looks fit, the ball is jumping off his bat and Sveum said the extra work in the offseason is obvious at this point in spring training.
Now, Hart has to learn how to become a major-league hitter, not just a talented one.
“He has to turn (hitting) into an art form instead of going up there and winging it,” Sveum said. “He’s what I call a poor-man’s Vladimir Guerrero because when it leaves the pitcher’s hand, he has a chance to hit it.
”But he’s understanding there’s more to this game than going up there with zero plan, and that comes with maturity and failing.“
If Hart grasps that for a whole season, there might not be another monthlong dark period. And Hart wants to make sure of that.
”I hate when people say I had a bad second half,“ Hart said. ”I had one of the best Augusts on the team, but of course September is what people remember.
“That’s why I was more focused this offseason—to prove people wrong.”