ANAHEIM – Back in those years when he was young and clean and perfectly directed, and then in the years he was not, and then in the years he had retaken his life and his game, Josh Hamilton dreamed of what he might do with 600 at-bats in a big-league season.
All those pitches, his body whole. All those chances, his mind pure.
All that talent, released, finally.
He stood Friday night with 521 at-bats. Well, he sat with 521. Slumped in a chair with them, actually.
“I’d be lying to you,” he said, “if I said I wasn’t tired.”
Coming up on September, nearing the end of a long, eventful Texas-hot summer, Hamilton is going to play his full season. He has hit 29 home runs, driven in 116 runs, batted nearly .300. He carried the home-run derby at Yankee Stadium. He became bigger than his back-story, more colorful than his body art, and the face of an ordinary franchise.
It was exhausting.
“This is new territory for me,” he said. “I’m trying to learn about it.”
He’s batted .264 since the All-Star break, which is starting to feel like forever ago. His wife, Katie, had their third child – a girl, Michaela, named after Katie’s father and the brother Katie lost when he was 9 years old – on Aug. 14. The minor ache on the left side of his mouth from a couple weeks ago has grown into a full-blown abscessed tooth, and now he talks through a tight jaw and chews his food on the right side. He’ll have that cleaned up sometime next week.
Yeah, it’s been a thrilling season for Josh Hamilton, and a trying one. He’s on a short list of American League MVP hopefuls but is no longer the clear favorite. He hardly missed a pitch for three months, and now he can hardly find one, at least not like he once did. The early-count fastballs of April and May are sliders now, or curveballs, and the fastballs he does see seem to get a little deeper on him than before.
He says he actually feels pretty good, but scouts see him dragging the bat a little, see a body stiffening some. He’s had 583 plate appearances and swung hard through most of them. The most plate appearances he had before this season was 418, eight years ago, in the South Atlantic League. And he didn’t spend three hours in the middle of that summer hitting 450-foot home runs into the Bronx night.
“I’m not doing anything different, as far as on the field,” he said. “I feel like I’m swinging the bat well, having good at-bats. I’m just not as hot as I was. That’s just baseball. I started off, you know, crazy. Now I feel like I’ve leveled off, the way you’d think somebody would level off. You can’t keep that pace up forever.”
The summer has been a typical one for the Texas Rangers, their starters’ ERA rising above 6 for the second half, the division and wild-card deficits growing into the teens, most of the roster wilting in the swelter. Hamilton has faded with the rest of them, so far.
“There’s no doubt,” said Angels first baseman Mark Teixeira, who survived four of those summers, “if you’re going to get tired anywhere in the big leagues in the second half, you’re going to get tired in Texas.”
Hamilton had 32 RBIs in April, 29 in May, 19 in June, 24 in July. He has 12 in August.
“He’s an impressive young man,” Teixeira said.
Teixeira had a year-round strategy to position him to hit in August and September, and he was a better second-half hitter every year in Texas. It was about fluids, always fluids, and eating right, and sleeping well.
“If he wants to talk, I’d love to,” Teixeira said.
And they did, on Friday evening, behind the batting cage at Angel Stadium, between Teixeira’s rounds of batting practice. Then Rangers manager Ron Washington sent Hamilton back out there, in center field, in the three hole ahead of Milton Bradley, into more at-bats, gaining on 600. Washington said he could rest Hamilton more, make him the designated hitter more, but he won’t.
“I’d rather push him out there and let him learn to play when he’s tired,” Washington said. “If he’s strong mentally, and he is, then he’ll get over the physical part. You’ve got guys on this team just as fatigued as he is, and they’re grinding. And he’s got to grind, too. This is all going to be good for him in the long run.
“He’s been relying on athletic ability all year. Because, how much baseball knowledge does he have? He just recently started throwing to the right bag, just recently learned to hit the cut-off man. But, when he gets it, that’s going to be scary. When he catches up, it will be like child’s play.”
For the moment, it’s looking a bit more like a man’s work. Hamilton on Friday got two hard fastballs from Angels starter Ervin Santana, hit them both reasonably well, and had them both die near the warning track. In those dreams of 600, they came with 100 RBIs, and a .300 batting average and 30 home runs. He has those 29 home runs, which brought a thin smile. Once, they’d come so easily.
“Hopefully,” he said, “I can get that 30th one sometime in the next month.”
He sighed. He’s tired.
“People who’ve played the game,” he said, “they know exactly what I’m talking about.”