Teixeira nearing full power again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mark Teixeira had heard the question so many times.

In a career that had followed such a natural progression - high school superstar in Baltimore to college All-American to minor league phenom to bona fide big league slugger - why had he suddenly stopped hitting home runs?

And for three months, he had said the same things. His swing was unaltered. He was healthy. He worked hard every day with Texas Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. He was certain that any day, those doubles he was piling up would start sailing over the wall.

Maybe his home run off Johan Santana just before the All-Star break was the beginning of an answer. If so, his performance at Camden Yards on Thursday night finished the sentence and added an exclamation point.

Teixeira's first two at-bats yielded the same results that have bugged him all season, a pair of drives that didn't carry quite as far as he had hoped. But in the sixth inning, he caught a Daniel Cabrera thunderbolt with his arcing left-handed swing and lifted it high over the wall in left-center - a homecoming home run for the Severna Park native.

He wasn't done. In the eighth, reliever Bruce Chen left a pitch high and Teixeira, hitting right-handed this time, sent another ball soaring into the left-field stands. The game was already out of hand when he faced Chen again in the ninth, but Teixeira finished his personal show with a screaming liner that tucked inside the left-field foul pole. It gave him his first career three-homer game and an opportunity to gloat to his critics if he chose.

But Teixeira didn't speak of the naysayers when he emerged from a post-game workout, bathed in sweat. Instead, he returned to those same lines.

"My swing has not changed one bit," he said. "I've looked at hours and hours of video, Rudy and I have talked about it, but there's a fine line between a home run and a line drive, and tonight, I just kind of found that home run stroke."

Teixeira's manager knew how important the game might be to his star.

"I feel really good for him, because I know how much he wants it," Buck Showalter said. "He's been such a contributor to us already this year, defensively and with the bat to some extent. It was such a level that he spoiled us with last year that it's hard to stay there. But he gave us a reminder tonight of what he's capable of."

Teixeira didn't encounter much failure on his way to big-league stardom. He hit .548 with 12 homers and graduated 12th in his class as a senior at Mount St. Joseph. He was possibly the best college hitter in the country for three seasons at Georgia Tech. The Rangers picked him fifth overall in the 2001 draft. He was a consensus top-10 prospect in the minor leagues.

The major leagues are supposed to be the toughest hurdle, of course, and Teixeira hit .259 with 26 home runs as a rookie. But he belted 38 homers his second year and 43 last year to go along with 144 RBIs. He also won a Gold Glove at first base, where he's thought to have excellent range, reflexes and arm strength. (He played third until a few years ago.)

During spring training this year, Teixeira spent time as first baseman for the disappointing U.S. entry in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. He struggled during the event, and though he refused to blame it for his sluggish start, he said it was less-than-ideal preparation for the season.

"It's not the perfect way to start the season," he said. "If you have three weeks of spring training, there's a lot of running, a lot of weightlifting, taking your time to get ready for the season. And we got thrust into a situation where you had to perform right away. Everything else got put on the back burner."

Teixeira hit only three homers in April, three in May and two in June. He never hit fewer than six in any month last season. His fortunes contrasted with those of his team.

The Rangers' story had grown redundant in recent seasons. They hit bundles of homers but give up just as many and wind up out of contention. This year, however, their pitching is middle-of-the pack instead of awful, and they enter play today tied for first in the AL West. That's without Teixeira slugging at expected capacity.

"It's not one guy," Showalter said. "But obviously, because we know what Mark's capable of, that's what makes everybody intrigued by where we are at this point in the season with the potential for things to happen better than they did in the first half. I'm not going to single out Mark because some guys have played better than expectations and some guys are not quite there yet."

It's almost a cliche for struggling power hitters to say their would-be homers are falling just short and ending up as doubles. But the numbers suggest that in Teixeira's case, the cliche may be apt. He entered the Orioles series on pace to hit just 17 homers but to shatter his career high with 57 doubles.

"It's a very fine line between a home run and a double off the wall, and I've found that out the hard way this year," Teixeira said. "I'd love to have 10 more home runs this year, but the ball bounces in funny ways. ... They're going to start coming. You can't change your whole thought process and attitude because of a couple months.

Teixeira, who is hitting .276 after going 0-for-3 with a walk yesterday, said he's trying to eliminate at-bats in which he either swings at a pitch he can't hit or fails to hit a pitch he should crush.

"I think most guys that play this game are aggressive hitters and they have to scale back," he said. "Everybody wants to hit. Walking is not as much fun. You see a ball up there; you want to crush it. So I think everybody's aggressive, but at the same time, I need to be more selective and hit my pitch more often."

He said that if he maintains his approach, the home runs and RBIs will come as they did on Thursday.

"Just like you can get on a roll offensively, defensively, whatever ... it goes the opposite way," Teixeira said. "When you start thinking, 'Oh, I'm not hitting homers,' you're going to psych yourself into not hitting homers. So hopefully, it's going to roll the other way now. Some of those balls that were hitting the wall or skying up in the air are going to start being homers, and I'll start driving in more runs."

Teammates have faith that they'll soon see the Teixeira of old.

"He has hit the ball hard the last few games," said Rangers center fielder Gary Matthews Jr. "I think he's really primed to have a big second half, and I'm not just saying that because I play for the Rangers. Look at the pitchers he's getting hits off of. He hit a home run off Santana and he hit the wall against [Joe] Nathan. I think he's primed to have a big second half."

Teixeira enjoyed having a big game in the park where he watched baseball as a teenager. And when asked to reflect on his journey from Severna Park to the big leagues, he brushed aside this season's struggles.

"If you'd have told me four years ago that this is where you're going to be in your career," he said, "I'd have taken it in a second."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°