Wait and See
By looking for a good pitch, third baseman Shea Hillenbrand has given Boston more pop
There was a simple formula for getting Red Sox third baseman Shea Hillenbrand out last year: Pitch him anywhere but in the strike zone. "Our book on him was that he'd be hacking all the time, so we could probably get away with not throwing him a strike," says Boston manager Grady Little, who was the Indians' bench coach for the last two seasons. "We had pretty good success against him."
Hillenbrand put up respectable numbers (.263, 12 home runs, 49 RBIs) for a rookie last season, but he drew a mere 13 walks in 493 plate appearances, and no other hitter in the American League with as many trips to the plate saw fewer pitches than the 3.25 he averaged. "No one in the minor leagues ever really taught me how to hit," says Hillenbrand, who nevertheless batted .313 over five seasons in Boston's farm system and led the Double A Eastern League with 171 hits for the Trenton ( N.J.) Thunder in 2000. "Most of the time last year I got myself out."
Now Hillenbrand is a man with a plan. After beginning this season with a 12-game hitting streak, he was batting .308 with 27 RBIs at week's end, but most impressive was his improved patience at the plate. He had seven walks—last year he didn't get his seventh until July 27—and was averaging 3.76 pitches per plate appearance. Says Little, "He is much more disciplined." Indeed, in a ninth-inning, bases-loaded pinch-hitting appearance against the Devil Rays last Saturday night, he worked righthander Victor Zambrano to a 3-and-1 count before launching a grand slam into a Tropicana Field catwalk. "I forced myself to be patient," he said after the game. "When it got to 3 and 1, I knew he had to come right at me."
Hillenbrand spent the off-season at home in Mesa, Ariz., reviewing videotape of every one of his at bats last season. He didn't like what he saw: a hitter who went to the plate with no plan of attack. This spring he concentrated on looking for pitches in specific zones early in the count and laying off everything else. The approach has made him more comfortable at the plate. "Last year I'd go into my third at bat having seen only three or four pitches," he says. "Now I see that many in my first at bat. I've already seen everything a pitcher has."
Hillenbrand keeps his focus by continuing to study videotape and having frequent conversations with Doug Gardner, a sport psychology consultant who works with players in Boston's minor league system. After he beat the Yankees with a two-run homer on a 2-2 count against closer Mariano Rivera on April 13, Hillenbrand said he had felt "an aura" come over him at the plate. "I wouldn't have gotten that hit last year," he says. "I probably would have swung at the first pitch."
Kirk Rueter's Strong Start
Location Is Everything
In the Giants' clubhouse lefthander Kirk Rueter is known as Woody for his resemblance to the cowboy character in Toy Story, and the Woody action figure hanging in Rueter's locker confirms the likeness. Last Saturday, however, Rueter received a more complimentary comparison. "He reminded me a little of Tom Glavine," Reds first baseman Sean Casey said after Rueter allowed one run in eight-plus innings in a 6-1 San Francisco win the night before. "He always hit his spots, he never really cut plate, and he worked us away all night."
A 10-year veteran with a history of struggling early in the season, Rueter was 4-1 and had the National League's fourth-best ERA (1.74) at week's end. The 31-year-old has been a solid starter since being traded to the Giants from the Expos in 1996, but this season his effectiveness has surpassed what he has shown before. Through Sunday, Rueter's four wins and ERA led the National League's second-best rotation, which had kept San Francisco just half a game behind the first-place Diamondbacks in the West despite an offense that aside from Barry Bonds, had been tepid. "You could see it in spring training, he was better," manager Dusty Baker says of Rueter. "Everybody's trying to figure it out. Maybe he's just getting better."
Perhaps pinpointing the reason for Rueter's improvement is difficult because his pitching style lulls observers to sleep. His fastball doesn't crack 90 mph, and he doesn't have an extraordinary breaking pitch. Like Glavine, the Braves' Cy Young-winning left-hander, he makes his living on the outer reaches of the plate, relentlessly spotting that middling fastball on or just off the outside corner and coming inside only occasionally, to keep hitters honest. Generally it takes Rueter a month or so of the season to get into a good rhythm and master his location. "This year I felt comfortable coming out of spring training and had a good feel for all my pitches," he says.