Posted: Thursday April 13, 2006 12:20PM; Updated: Thursday April 13, 2006 4:14PM
Jeff Francoeur hasn't been himself this season, starting the year in a 3-for-37 slump.
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The question, like many of its inquiring ilk, floated into the late afternoon with no fangs, no real bite at all. It was simple conversation kindling, a greeting of the most innocuous degree, the icebreaker of all icebreakers. But to Jeff Francoeur, it flew straight to the heart of the matter.
"So, Jeff," I said as we sat down in the Braves' dugout at Turner Field before Wednesday night's game, "how's it going?"
The kid broke into a huge smile, as natural to him as swinging a bat or pulling on a pair of spikes. "Great," he said, almost without thinking. And then, with that smile already looking a bit strained, "Well ... it's been better.
"It sucks. No question, it sucks. But I'll be all right."
Francoeur, the 22-year-old face of Atlanta's youth movement, the so-called Baby Braves, is chin deep in the worst hitting funk of his life. The always gregarious Francoeur is a little less outgoing lately, a little less prone to breaking into a smile. He's searching for a way out of this horrific slump, and so far all he's finding is a growing sense of frustration and helplessness.
He talks about it to just about everyone. He tries to drop the subject and let his natural talents take over. He examines the tapes. He lowers his stance a little, and raises his hands. He goes up to the plate trying to work the count. He walks up intent on jumping on a first-pitch fastball.
And if he accidentally catches a glimpse of the huge scoreboard in Atlanta on Thursday in his first at-bat, this is what it'll read:
If anyone's counting -- Francoeur, for one, certainly is -- that's 3 for 37.
"It's one of those things that at the end of the year, when it's all said and done, is going to be a great learning experience for me," Francoeur said with all sincerity. (Everything he says or does is stuffed with sincerity.) "But it's hard to look at it now and say this has been a great learning experience. It's like, Hey, I've learned my lesson! All right already! I'm good!"
Francoeur was pretty good in spring training, but the new season started badly for him, going 0 for 5 in the opener on the road, and by the end of the team's West Coast trip, Francoeur was pressing.