The health of Lance Berkman’s right knee was considered the key to the Texas Rangers’ offense this season, and his ability to stay in the lineup remains at the top of the checklist.
A productive season from Mitch Moreland was right behind Berkman’s medical issues, but after only three weeks, it was pushing for the top spot.
Moreland started the season 0 for 13. He started out 1 for 28 in road games. He had only one hit in his first 19 at-bats against left-handers.
At the end of the 17th game of the season, he was hitting .157. His first chance to be an everyday player was this close to dissolving into a full-blown platoon with Jeff Baker.
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But Moreland had shown flashes of what could come next, and he felt comfortable despite all of the outs he was making.
Manager Ron Washington stuck with him, in part because he wasn’t the only left-handed hitter struggling, and now the Rangers are being rewarded.
Moreland entered Tuesday as one of the hottest hitters in baseball, no matter who is pitching to him. His batting average had climbed 135 points since bottoming out on April 20.
Twenty-one games of torrid hitting has put to rest any talk of a platoon at first base, and a confident Moreland has designs on permanently ending that discussion.and
“It’s tough for everybody to not get caught up in the results, but it’s part of the game,” Moreland said. “I knew it was a short time frame, and if I kept my head down and kept working, it would work itself out.
“You’re going to have your ups and downs, and it just happened to be at the beginning. But it doesn’t matter. That’s why we play 162 games. Everybody is going to have hot and cold streaks. You just try to go out and minimize the bad ones.”
He hasn’t had much trouble with that lately. He hit two more home runs Tuesday night in Oakland while extending his hitting streak to seven games. Moreland has hit six homers in the past nine games.
All six have come in May, the second-highest total in the majors for the month. His .705 slugging percentage entering Tuesday is also sixth-best this month for players with at least 25 plate appearances in May.
Those power numbers were part of a stretch in which Moreland hit in 17 of 21 games (30 for 79) to lift his average to .292. And he had accomplished it without making major adjustments.
“I haven’t changed anything,” said Moreland. “I went out with the same plan that I had all the way through spring. I just want to go up there and compete and square it up. I feel like I’ve been grinding out my at-bats, and for the most part it’s been working.”
The changes Moreland made came in the off-season. He was healthy after dealing with wrist issues the previous winter, and he entered spring camp in the best shape of his career. He also made a mental commitment to be himself rather than trying to match numbers with other first basemen in the league.
But there have been other changes, hitting coach Dave Magadan said. He sees a batter who is hitting to all fields with power and who has altered scouting reports that were playing Moreland as a dead-pull hitter.
Twice in the Boston series earlier this month, Moreland beat an infield shift by slapping singles to left field. He delivered an opposite-field homer at Milwaukee and had another key RBI hit to left field in the series.
“It’s not like he’s giving up power hitting the ball the other way,” Magadan said. “Sixty-five to 70 percent of the pitches are going to be middle away. Why not groove a swing where you can drive those balls?”
But the biggest difference is the one that will keep Moreland playing every day. The left-handed hitter has been pounding left-handed pitchers, going 13 for 28 (.464) against them over the past 12 games.
He has turned an .053 average against lefties into a .291 mark. That’s better than the right-handed-hitting Lance Berkman (.286), Ian Kinsler, (.273), Craig Gentry (.244) and Elvis Andrus (.178).
“With all the lefties we’ve been facing, it would have been easy for him to, not shut it down, but you know ,” Magadan said. “When we started all those lefties, he still hadn’t built up his average yet. He had to do all that build-up against some pretty tough left-handed pitching.”
Something has definitely changed even though Moreland says he’s the same hitter he was during a slow start to the season. The sample size is small only 38 games into the season, but Moreland is determined to stay within himself and stay in the lineup every day.
“It’s definitely better now than it was, but it’s not because of me changing anything,” Moreland said. “I’ve still got the same approach. I’m just going out and trying to play hard and help our team.”