His bat is spring-loaded

Beltre has gotten off to unusually fast start

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 14, 2010

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MINNEAPOLIS — It was different in other years, when Adrian Beltre would start out slowly and decline from there. He would fiddle with his swing, altering things and altering them back. He would watch his batting average sag even further, watch his frustration rise, and not be able to find his way out.

“It just starts and you hit some balls good, and you don’t get rewarded for it,’’ Beltre said. “Then you start changing stuff and then you start getting deeper into the slump and deeper. Then it’s just constant fighting to get out of it and sometimes that’s when me, as a hitter, started playing with different stuff. That’s when everything is going south, fighting to get out of it until the third month of the season when you start finding it again.

“Just one of those things that I try to avoid every year. So far so good this year.’’

That is probably an understatement. Though it is only seven games into the season, Beltre has had a spectacular start to his Red Sox tenure. Not only has he been excellent on defense — with the exception of a rib-rocking smash into Jacoby Ellsbury in Kansas City — Beltre is the author of the hardest hits on the club, according to his manager. He has collected nine hits in 24 at-bats (.375) with a .777 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

But if you look a bit closer, there’s a little something odd about that latter statistic. Beltre’s on-base percentage is .360, even with his batting average at .375. He has yet to walk, and, in fact, has demonstrated little patience at the plate.

“Sometimes you give up something as a hitter, but what you give up also makes you what you are,’’ Beltre said. “I’ve tried that before, I’ve tried to be more patient, but I don’t do it in the right way. I try to be more patient, but then I count strike one, strike two, so now I’m in the hole. It’s a different situation that you should be aggressive, but you should be patient in the way that you don’t swing at the pitcher’s pitch.

“I’m the type of guy that I feel like I don’t want two strikes. I’m aggressive because I don’t want to be called strike three. That’s when I think that I need to cut back a little bit and be more patient after two strikes. That’s one of the things that I’m trying to do better this year.’’

While the Sox are known as a patient team, a team that sees a lot of pitches, that’s not something that matters to Beltre. Not if he is going to be hitting as well as he is right now.

“I think he’s squared up more balls than anybody on our team,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “He’s hit some balls right on the nose. He kind of is what he is. I don’t know that you want nine like that. But if he’s getting the barrel of the bat on it, that’s OK. That’s what he’s supposed to do. I think he’s hit more balls hard than anybody on the team.’’

And that’s after a spring training in which Beltre wasn’t squaring up anything.

He has started off most of the past few seasons slowly, with April averages of .207 in 2009, .299 in 2008, .244 in 2007, .189 in 2006, and .258 in 2005. May has been just as bad. It’s only when the weather gets warmer, when Beltre stops messing around with his swing, that he finally gets into his groove, one that’s expected to pick up this season with the advantages of Fenway Park (and without the disadvantages of Seattle’s Safeco Field).

“I’m seeing the ball good,’’ Beltre said. “I’m hitting the ball where it’s pitched, which is one of the things that I need to do right now. For the most part, I’ve been swinging at strikes and I’ve been making solid contact. As a hitter, that’s what you want to do .

“Hopefully I can keep swinging the way I’m swinging. I feel comfortable at home plate, hitting some balls hard. I want to keep it that way, and hopefully it keeps going that way and I get some hits, get that first half of this season good. That’s probably more of my challenge every year.’’

But that’s not exactly the reason Beltre ended up in a Red Sox uniform. His defensive reputation has outstripped his offensive reputation in recent seasons, though that has partly been due to his home park. So while he has been slamming the ball around various ballparks, he also has been showing off his skills in the field — except for one moment.

In the third game of the season, Beltre reached down to bare-hand a ball, coming way in on the grass to stab a dribbler, and it appeared the Fenway crowd would get its first chance to see the third baseman make his signature defensive play. But Beltre missed, the ball squibbed away, and Derek Jeter made it safely to first base.

“You guys wait,’’ Beltre said. “People are going to see it.’’

Beltre, though, still needs time to adjust to an infield that doesn’t quite measure up to those of his previous teams, the Mariners and Dodgers. He has played on some of the best surfaces in baseball. And Fenway is not quite there.

“It’s cut different,’’ Beltre said. “They have, like, checkered stuff, which the ball kind of goes different ways. For the most part, we’re OK, because most of the time we get the ball on the dirt. But when you’re playing in or you get slow ground balls, it’s like a snake coming at you, so you have to kind of take a guess where the ball’s going to go. I guess through the course of the season I’ll get used to it.

“It’s not nice. It’s not a good field. It’s a snake. The grass is a snake coming at you. It not only affects your defense, it affects your confidence. Like you get in that mind-set that, ‘Oh, where’s the ball going to go?’ So you start thinking instead of just reaction. I hope that I just get all the ground balls back on the dirt, not on the grass.’’

Not that Beltre ever will stop trying to make the tough plays, especially ones coming in from third base. It’s the reason he takes countless ground balls in spring training, standing in on the grass during batting practice to hone his instincts and skills.

On that particular barehanded attempt, Beltre couldn’t make the play, couldn’t grab the slow roller and fire the throw to first base — a play he has completed many, many times with the Mariners and Dodgers.

“I didn’t know where it was going to go, so I just guessed where it was going to go,’’ Beltre said. “It wasn’t the right guess.’’

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