PEORIA, Ariz. — In lieu of towering home runs or a lofty batting average at this time of the year, Seattle Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak is looking for positive signs with his batting stroke.
Two doubles in a 2-for-4 game Friday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs not only helped Smoak raise his spring training average to .214, the quality of his at-bats had him feeling good at the plate exactly a week before the season opener.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I feel comfortable in the box,” Smoak said. “I finally got my first double to left-center field and the other one was to dead-center field. That was a good sign.”
Another good sign was the line drive Smoak hit to left field in the eighth inning. Cubs left fielder Tyler Colvin caught that one, but it was one of the few hard-hit balls that Smoak, a switch hitter, has connected with lately while batting right-handed.
Smoak is batting .276 off right-handed pitchers but only .077 off lefties. He says he feels much better hitting left-handed, and there’s a reason. He hasn’t faced a left-handed pitcher in a while.
“It was good yesterday to finally get some right-handed at-bats because I went a week, week and a half or so without even hitting right-handed,” Smoak said. “It comes and goes depending on how many ABs you get.”
That’s one reason he got at-bats in a minor league game last week when left-hander Luke French went down to get work.
“Sometimes you go a good three or four days and you don’t see a lefty. Sometimes you go two or three days and see nothing but lefties,” Smoak said. “You’ve got to work on both sides every day because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Smoak said he hasn’t altered much in his swing, other than trying to remain relaxed at the plate and letting pitches get deep into his swing.
“I’m trying to be a hitter,” he said. “Before, I was just a power hitter.”
It’s easy for a guy to be that when he has worn the power-hitting label through his career.
“When you try to do too much, bad things happen,” Smoak said. “I just try to hit it on the screws. I’ve just got to keep it simple and good things will happen.”
Smoak said he hasn’t changed anything about his approach other than telling himself to relax. That wasn’t so easy last July when Smoak arrived in Seattle after being the player the Mariners demanded from the Rangers in the Cliff Lee trade.
He batted only .159 in 16 games after the trade, including a 2-for-36 stretch before the Mariners sent him down to Class AAA Tacoma. In 35 games with the Rainiers, Smoak batted .271, hit seven home runs, helped the Rainiers win the Pacific Coast League championship. And he found himself.
He returned to the Mariners for 14 games at the end of the season and batted .340 with three homers and 14 RBI.
“It was a whirlwind last year, a roller-coaster ride,” Smoak said. “It’s a lot easier to relax coming into this camp knowing all the guys. It’s been a lot easier. It was tough early on, playing a day, having a day off, playing a day, day off. But now I’m getting more consistent at-bats and things are starting to click a little bit.”