Church making believers out of Mets fans
From his seat in the Mets dugout last year, Howard Johnson had a upclose view of what Ryan Church could do. In 41 at bats against New York Church, then with the NL East-rival Washington Nationals, batted .317 with four home runs and 12 RBIs -- totals he was unable to match against any other team. "I noticed a guy with tremendous physical tools and a quick bat who seemed like he wasn't quite putting it together," says Johnson, the Mets' hitting instructor. At one point last year he even approached Church, saying he'd love to work with him in Queens. "Little did I know that we would end up getting him," says Johnson.
The Mets had grown tired of the antics of Lastings Milledge -- once the top prospect in the organization -- so in the offseason general manager Omar Minaya dealt the young outfielder to the Nationals for Church and catcher Brian Schneider in a deal most critics thought was short-changing Milledge's potential. But in Schneider, Minaya saw a replacement for the aging Paul Lo Duca and in Church, he saw an everyday right fielder, even though the left-handed hitter had been a platoon player for most of his career. Only once had he started more than 63 games in a season, but Minaya liked Church's numbers from last year -- a .272 average with 43 doubles, 15 homers and 70 RBIs in the pitchers' paradise of RFK Stadium -- and thought they'd improve in the Mets' lineup. "He has played a great right field, a Golde Glove right field," says Minaya. "And he's hit well, which has helped."
He's hit very well, in fact, one of only three Mets (along with Schneider and David Wright) to be meeting or exceeding expectations. Church leads team in average (.309) and home runs (nine) and ranks second in slugging percentage (.530), OPS (.909) and RBIs (32). Given the chance to play every day, Church has thrived and, at 29, is enjoying a breakout season in his ninth year of pro ball. He's even quieting concerns he couldn't hit left-handed pitching, bettering a .254 career average (and .229 in '07) against southpaws with a .327 clip and three homers in 55 plate appearances this season. "Here he has the chance to play every day and not take days off against lefties," says Schneider. "The coaches have a lot of confidence in him."
Johnson had wanted to see Church in a spring training game before suggesting any changes, only to be saddled by delays beyond his control. While going for a popup in a March 1 game Church collided with first baseman Marlon Anderson and suffered a Grade II concussion, which sidelined him for a week and left him with lingering headaches. Then on March 14 his wife, Tina, gave birth to the couple's first child, a healthy 7-pound, 12-ounce baby boy, Mason Alexander.
Soon after Church returned from a three-day paternity leave, Johnson approached his new protégé and told him, "Now that your family life is stabilized, let's get ready for the season." For the final two weeks of spring training the pair worked in the batting cages twice daily, before and after each game, and made two key tweaks to Church's stance, in an efffort to minimize his natural uppercut. Johnson shortened the gap between Church's feet by eight inches, bringing him out of a wide crouch, and lowered his hands from the top of his head to about eye level. "It helps eliminate that big uppercut that I thought was created by his feet," says Johnson. "We lowered his hands and tried to get him to keep that front elbow and shoulder in more, so they wouldn't fly open. When he flies open, it's because his upper-body is taking over, and he gets under a lot of balls." Adds Church, "I used to speed up, drop the barrel and dip a lot. It's like night and day."
Church is a late-bloomer. He was recruited to Nevada primarily as a left-handed pitcher with a devastating change-up -- "He probably could have been a pro pitcher as well," says Nevada coach Gary Powers -- but he tore his rotator cuff as a freshman and would throw only 47 more innings in his college career. "I thought I was done," recalls Church. "I always thought I'd make it [to the majors] as a left-handed pitcher." He didn't become a fulltime hitter until his senior season when Powers, impressed by Church's athleticism and in need of an outfielder, started him in left. In 220 at bats Church hit .382 with 14 homers and 62 RBIs and was named first-team All-Big West. The Indians selected him in the 14th round of the 2000 draft, exclusively as an outfielder, and he was MVP of the New York--Penn League that first year. "I was sitting there trying to pinch myself: Is this really happening?" says Church. "I realized, Hey, I'm a hitter now."
Now, under Johnson's watchful eye, he figures he'll only continue to climb: "I'm still learning. I'm going to get better as I get older."