Gil LeBreton

Hamilton’s Rangers comeback begins in ‘jumpy’ fashion in Triple A

Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton signs autographs for fans before a baseball game against the Nashville Sounds on Sunday, May 10, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. Hamilton is playing for the Round Rock Express AAA minor league baseball team before rejoining the Rangers after a rehab stint.
Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton signs autographs for fans before a baseball game against the Nashville Sounds on Sunday, May 10, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. Hamilton is playing for the Round Rock Express AAA minor league baseball team before rejoining the Rangers after a rehab stint. AP

Sitting there in his royal blue Texas Rangers batting practice jersey and shorts, Josh Hamilton looks like he never left.

The arms bedecked with tattoos. The russet, neatly trimmed beard. The sturdy, linebacker’s body.

On Sunday, he even had his smile, the one that he got to wear so often during his five All-Star seasons with the Rangers.

“I feel good,” Hamilton announced. “Physically, mentally, spiritually.”

Playing in his first official game in nearly eight months, batting second and playing left field for the Triple-A Round Rock Express, Hamilton went 1 for 3 Sunday. He flared a single over the heads of an over-shifted infield for a first-inning hit, and then he struck out twice against Nashville’s Barry Zito.

That’s right — Zito. The ex-big league lefty whose fastball couldn’t ripple a still pond.

According to the scoreboard, Zito never topped 82 miles an hour the entire day.

But that was a good thing, Hamilton insisted.

“Barry wasn’t really throwing gas today,” Hamilton said. “Obviously, I would have liked to have faced a guy who throws 89-up. But it helps as far as him being crafty and knowing how to pitch.”

On this Mother’s Day, Hamilton also logged five innings in the outfield, dispelling innuendos from California that his drug- and alcohol-damaged body can no longer withstand the rigors of standing in manicured grass for two hours on a sunny afternoon.

He is healthy, it appears. It’s his long, sweeping batting swing, though, that appears off.

“I was a little jumpy at the plate, which is to be expected,” Hamilton said.

For a hitter like Hamilton, a guy with a see-ball/hit-ball approach, the timing is always going to dictate the results.

The key for him in this Round Rock stint, therefore, is “seeing a lot of pitches in the games. Getting different looks. All that stuff. I can’t practice that.”

Interestingly, Hamilton seems to view his Triple-A job as a rehab assignment, not a tryout.

“You could find me up there as early as tomorrow,” he said, “or a week from now.”

The Rangers, no doubt, would be thrilled if Hamilton suddenly caught fire and slugged his way back to Arlington by mandate. But who knows if that hitter is still inside of Hamilton, who turns 34 in two weeks?

The Rangers aren’t about to promote Hamilton until his hitting suggests a reasonable hope for success.

To expedite that possibility, he has already begun to reassemble a support group like the one that kept him focused during his first stint in Texas. Shayne Kelley, his life accountability partner, accompanied him on the trip here.

“I reassembled [the support group], and that was a big deal,” Hamilton said before Sunday’s game. “I take full responsibility for allowing that to dissipate over the years.

“One of the things I realized was that when I’ve been successful and when my mind has been right and able to play the best that I can play, there have been people who’ve been around me and helped me to get into that mind frame.”

Hamilton, who is seeking a divorce from his wife Katie, was asked Sunday whether he feels he should never have left the Rangers’ organization.

“There are so many things that weigh into it,” he answered. “You’re in a marriage and you’re trying to make decisions together.

“Looking back, it was an opportunity to go somewhere. But sometimes when you make decisions, they don’t work out. That one obviously didn’t.”

Hamilton, the devout Christian, called it “a small miracle” that he ended up returning to Texas.

“I feel like the Lord had his hand on it to get me back here,” Hamilton said. “I feel like I’m in the place now that I’m supposed to be.”

The shirt — and the smile — made it seem like old times.

He doesn’t know when he’ll be back up with his old team, the Rangers, Josh Hamilton said Sunday.

The bigger questions, however, are still the ifs.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton

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