Getting a Grip
Ryan Klesko, with newfound discipline at bat, has powered the surprising Padres
During the off-season, Ryan Klesko, the Padres' first baseman, hunts elk on his 9,000-acre ranch in central Oregon. He and Braves righthander John Smoltz stalk deer on the 1,300-acre spread they co-own near Macon, Ga. Klesko uses his house in Corpus Christi as a hunting and fishing base. He took a fishing trip to Costa Rica last winter and has one planned in Fiji next winter. Oh, yeah, he surfs as often as he can whenever he's at his San Diego residence.
As peripatetic and diverse an outdoorsman as he is off the field, the 29-year-old Klesko, who's in his 10th big league season, long was considered one-dimensional on it, known for an all-or-nothing helicopter swing and little else during his eight years with Atlanta. That has changed in San Diego, where he was dealt after the 1999 season. "When he gets on base, it's like watching Rickey Henderson," says Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn. "I just hope he doesn't get hurt stealing bases."
That's not usually a concern with a 6'3", 240-pound number 3 hitter, but through Sunday, Klesko, who set a career high with 23 steals last year after never having swiped more than six, was second in the National League, with 13 thefts. He was also hitting .300 with 12 home runs and 46 RBIs, fifth most in the league, and had a ninth-best .422 on-base percentage. "Ryan is capable of having an MVP-type year," says San Diego manager Bruce Bochy. "He's big, he's strong, he can run, and he can punish the baseball."
The Padres' surprising run in the tumultuous NL West—their brief hold on first place last week was (with the exception of a one-day share in April 2000) San Diego's first since 1998, the year it reached the World Series—has been sparked by strong pitching and an offense centered on Klesko. Even after losing three of four games with the Diamondbacks last week to fall two games behind the division-leading Dodgers and Rockies, the Padres had the league's fourth-best ERA (3.90) and the fourth-most strikeouts, and had allowed the third-fewest walks. On offense San Diego was the league's second-highest-scoring team (5.4 runs per game to the Rockies' 6.3). Its attack was based on patience at the plate (a big-league-best 223 walks), speed (52 steals, tops in the NL) and timely hitting.
Klesko has excelled in all of those areas—plus, as his four-homer, nine-RBI, two-game binge against the Astros last week made clear, he has as much wallop as almost any hitter in baseball. The power has always been there: He hit a career-high 34 home runs in 1996 and at least 20 in five of the six seasons in which he has had at least 300 at bats. Since arriving in San Diego, Klesko has become a more patient and studious hitter, one who no longer tries to belt every pitch 500 feet. As a Brave he struck out nearly twice as often as he walked. Last year his walks (91) outnumbered his whiffs (81) for the first time. Through Sunday he had struck out 30 times and drawn 37 free passes, fifth most in the NL. "I've learned to study pitchers more," Klesko says. "When I was younger, I was more of a free swinger. I don't swing as hard as I used to on every pitch."
"You think of him as more brawn than brains, but he's a very astute hitter," says Bochy. "He makes adjustments and uses the whole field."
Klesko says improved workout habits over the past two years—his girlfriend, Amy Hamrick, is his personal trainer—have made him more effective at the plate, as have vision exercises that he began doing last year. The drills, which he calls "eye push-ups," involve focusing on things like a piece of string bedecked with multicolored beads to balance the strength of the eyes. "Since I've been doing them, I feel I've seen the ball much better," he says.
Klesko also enjoys a sense of maturity and confidence that comes with getting to play every day at one position. He didn't have that opportunity in Atlanta, where he was benched against lefthanders and shuttled between first base and leftfield. Klesko still struggles against lefties (.227 average, no home runs in 44 at bats), but Bochy has put him in the lineup every day. "I can relax knowing they have that confidence in me," Klesko says. "I feel more like a well-rounded team player."
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