By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz.— Corey Hart has a message for anyone fretting at his anemic spring performance to date. The same message he delivered to the Mariners prior to the start of workouts.
“It’s always been a process for me to find a comfort level and timing at the plate in spring training,” he said. “I told them coming in, ‘Don’t expect a lot because it’s going to take a little while to figure out what I’m doing.’”
So don’t worry that he has just four hits in 31 at-bats. Or only one extra-base hit through 11 games. Or that he’s also struck out 16 times. Because if any of that is a harbinger, he believes it might be the best one possible.
“My best years have been after my worst springs,” Hart said. “So I’m definitely not worried too much. And usually my best springs are my worst years.”
Much depends on that holding true.
The Mariners signed Hart, who turns 32 on Monday, as a free agent last December in the belief he can return to form after missing all of last season while undergoing major surgery on both knees.
Hart averaged 29 homers and 83 RBI from 2010-12 — just the sort of right-handed production that club officials saw as a much-needed element for their lefty-heavy lineup.
The knees were, and remain, a concern, but Hart has been slowed this spring not by knee issues but by soreness in his forearm and lower back.
Both are common spring maladies. Neither was a major concern.
But they cut into efforts to hone his timing in workouts and later in games.
“It’s starting to get better,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He’s starting to recognize (pitches). I liken it a lot to what I went through with Victor Martinez last year (in Detroit) after a year off. It’s tough.
“There are times when, as a hitter, you get frustrated because you’re used to (being at) a certain point, and you’re not there.
Martinez batted just .217 last season in his first 43 games with two homers and 21 RBI after missing the 2012 season because of a torn knee ligament.
He then batted .333 over his final 116 games with 12 homers and 62 RBI.
“I told (Hart) he’s got to understand the journey,” McClendon said. “He’s got to respect the journey. He’s got to enjoy the journey. And at some point, he’s going to get it back.
“Don’t try to speed up the process because that’s only going to make things worse. I like what I saw (Tuesday) night. Now, we need to get him more at-bats.”
The Mariners sent Hart to a minor-league game Wednesday for that reason. Spring rules are more flexible for minor-league games; i.e., players can bat every inning by mutual agreement.
“The timing is still a process,” Hart said. “I’m seeing the ball fine. I think my overall approach is fine. I’m just not altogether yet. Just not consistent.
That’s just one of those things.”
The key is he feels healthy. The rest will come.
“Knees are good,” Hart said. “I still do my (treatment) stuff. I’m not 100 percent, but I’m close enough. The back and arm stuff was just minor stuff that you work through.”
McClendon voiced a hope earlier in spring that Hart could log 145 games or more in right field. He is more cautious now as the Mariners approach their season opener March 31 in Anaheim.
“We’ve got to be careful,” McClendon said. “We’ve got to make sure he can start the season, and he can finish the season. That might be asking a bit much as far as playing (145 games in) right field.
“But can he play 145 to 150 games total? I think so. In a combination of right field, DH and a little first base.”
In short, the Mariners need Hart’s bat more than they need him in right field. That his bat isn’t yet where it needs isn’t yet a problem.
“You always want results,” Hart said, “but I’m not far off. Comfort-wise, I’m not far off. I’m getting closer. Even though the results aren’t there, my approach is getting closer.”