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Orioles' J.J. Hardy feeling healthier, stronger heading into stretch run and producing like it

Baltimore Orioles' J.J. Hardy, right, is congratulated by Mark Trumbo (45) after scoring against the Oakland Athletics in the third inning of a baseball game, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, in Oakland, Calif.
Baltimore Orioles' J.J. Hardy, right, is congratulated by Mark Trumbo (45) after scoring against the Oakland Athletics in the third inning of a baseball game, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (Ben Margot / AP)

SAN FRANCISCO — Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy is a little uneasy talking about how good his body feels these days for fear of jinxing himself, and that's easily understandable given the litany of injuries he has dealt with over the course of his career.

But while younger bodies are wearing down through the second half of the season, the 33-year-old Hardy said this is as good as he has felt since he was a teenager.

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"I would say it's the best I've felt since about 1999," Hardy said Wednesday in Oakland. "No joke. I really feel like my body hasn't felt this good since my sophomore year of high school. I've had times this year, like before my foot injury, it was about as good as high school. And then I came back from that and I had about a three- to four-week span where I was about as miserable as I've been in a long time, just from favoring my foot. It was really hurting. And then after the All-Star break, it was back to my body feeling the way it was supposed to."

Hardy missed 42 games from early May to mid June with a freak foot injury; he fractured a bone in his left foot after being hit by a foul tip there. But since returning, he has been one of the Orioles' most consistent hitters. From July 2 (two weeks after returning from his foot injury) through Friday, Hardy hit .328/.363/.474, providing stability in the bottom third of the team's batting order while continuing to anchor the Orioles infield with Gold Glove-caliber defense. His success has even led manager Buck Showalter to bat Hardy second the past two times the Orioles faced a left-handed starter.

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Coming into this season, injuries had sapped Hardy's ability to drive the ball for two years. He dealt with a painful back injury two seasons ago and last year played the entire season with a torn labrum in his nonthrowing shoulder. He hit just 17 homers over those two seasons combined after averaging 26 homers from 2011 to 2013.

The numbers might not show it yet — Hardy entered Saturday with five homers in 68 games — but its clear the two-time All-Star has more pop in his bat this year. He's making more hard contact, and a .324 batting average on balls in play since returning from the disabled list shows that he's getting hits when making that contact.

"It's so easy [to notice the difference] given that his outs have been harder," Showalter said. "You can tell. It's just the sound of the ball off his bat now. It's more of a crack than a thud. You can tell he's really working it well through the zone. He's really been a threat every time up now."

Hardy has noticed a difference as well.

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"I can tell you that I don't think my body is hindering anything I'm doing," Hardy said. "The last two years I don't think I took a swing without something [physical] affecting it. ... I think I'm a lot closer to where I want to be, for sure. I don't feel like I'm there yet, but I feel like when it comes to hitting the ball hard, I'm able to do that. I just need to figure out maybe how to get rid of some of these bad habits I've created over the last two years of swinging with pain."

Hardy feels his power stroke is returning. His gap power has already arrived, as he already hit more doubles this season (17) in his first 68 games than he did in 114 games last year (14). After years of tinkering with his swing and making various adjustments to hit through the pain, he's trying to recapture his power of the past.

"I've taken probably 1,000 at-bats of probably not being able to do what I've wanted to do and yeah, I'm sure you create bad habits doing that," Hardy said. "Now that I don't have pain, I'd like to get back to doing what I did back in 2011 and '12 and '13. I feel like I'm moving in the right direction, for sure, and when it comes to hitting the ball hard I feel as good as I ever have. Now, it's about getting that backspin and the right trajectory, and driving the ball more."

Hardy decided not to have a second surgery on his left shoulder, instead choosing to do everything he could to strengthen it in the offseason.

"I think not having the surgery was a really good decision," he said. "Coming back from that surgery in '04 was one of the hardest things I've done, and I know people who whenever they have that front shoulder problem, they're never quite the same. But hell, I don't think I'm quite the same from '04 as what I was before."

But for Hardy, this past offseason included a dedication to get stronger overall. In past offseasons, he said knee problems would hinder him from keeping his legs strong in the offseason. His knees would flare up when he'd try to do leg exercises, setting him back. But in preparation for an important offseason in the gym, Hardy received cortisone injections in both of his knees late last season, which he said was huge in allowing him to get stronger in the winter.

"I don't think that was totally it, but I think that's part of it," Hardy said. "I think a lot of it is the training that I've been doing in the offseason. I went about it a different way. I was doing exercises and workouts that [strength and conditioning coaches] Joe Hogarty and Ryo [Naito] set up for me. I feel like I got stronger, and I feel like a lot of my problems from before were from being weak.

"So when I talk about playing with patella tendinitis or knee pain pretty much every game in my career, this year that hasn't been bothering me. My back, knock on wood, hasn't been acting up at all. The shoulder feels strong and stable. My throwing arm is good. It's amazing to think about how many things I've gone through."

Looking forward, Showalter said he could have done a better job picking days off for Hardy, giving him more days off after night games, and said he will look to do more of that.

"He's probably in as good of a place as he's been in a while," Showalter said. "It's a reminder to us about how good he's been. … I think as we go forward, next year, I need to do a better job of picking my spots with him maybe. J.J. will never give in and say that, but that's my job to take that decision out of his hands."

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard

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