Tuesday May 22nd, 2007

The beer-and-brats capital of the United States is fast becoming the home of the long ball as well, thanks to Prince Fielder and shortstop J.J. Hardy. At week's end the Brewers led the majors in home runs with 58, and Hardy (14) and Fielder (12) ranked one-two in the National League. (Braves third baseman Chipper Jones also had 12.) When Milwaukee third baseman Craig Counsell looks at the list of NL leaders, he shakes his head and says, "O.K., Prince, I can see that one; he's supposed to hit bombs. But J.J.? Anyone who told you they expected this is crazy."

A lanky 6'2" and 190 pounds, Hardy is as shocked as anyone else to see his name above those of Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols. "I've tried to explain it, to come up with something, but I can't," says Hardy, who never hit more than 12 homers in four minor league seasons. "I guess I'm just seeing the ball well." All season long Hardy, 24, has feasted on high fastballs, and that was the case last Saturday night at Miller Park when he used his quick, compact swing to take Twins righthander Scott Baker deep for number 14, his eighth homer in 15 games. Hardy is trying to become the first shortstop to lead the NL in home runs since Ernie Banks in 1960. (Through Sunday he was also the league leader in RBIs, with 41.)

Opposing teams are beginning to realize that Hardy's incendiary start is no fluke. "He was drafted out of high school and sometimes it takes young guys a little longer to develop," says Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty. "I think he could hit 30 homers and bat .300. Like Prince, he's a guy who seems to read pitchers well, and he knows the strike zone."

Also like Fielder, Hardy (whose initials stand for James Jerry) has athletic bloodlines. His mother, Susie, was a highly ranked amateur golfer who competed against Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez. (Susie played on the golf team at Arizona, but a nerve disorder in her hands curtailed her pro career.) His father, Mark, was a professional tennis player, ranked No. 270 in the world at one time. Says Dodgers third base coach Rich Donnelly, who spent the last three seasons in Milwaukee, "J.J. is one of the best athletes I have ever seen. He's got the genes."

As a senior at Sabino (Ariz.) High, Hardy was more highly regarded as a pitcher than as an infielder, but he wanted to be an every-day player. "The Brewers were one of the few teams that liked me better as a shortstop," he says. A second-round pick in the 2001 draft, Hardy made a steady climb through Milwaukee's minor league system before hitting a speed bump. In 2004, while playing for Triple A Indianapolis, he tore the labrum in his left shoulder in May, sidelining him for the year and sending him into a deep funk. "I drew the shades down in my house and didn't want to talk to anyone or do anything," he says.

Hardy got a boost when his older brother, Logan, moved in with him in June after having spent six months in Iraq with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Logan was among the first soldiers to storm Saddam Hussein's palace in Baghdad. "He had seen some terrible things over there," says J.J. "We just spent the days sitting around talking, helping each other through the tough times. From then on I had a completely different outlook on baseball and life."

Hardy made the big club in spring training the next year and played in 124 games, then was sidetracked again in '06 with a right ankle injury that required surgery. But his emergence this season alongside Fielder and 24-year-old second baseman Rickie Weeks, and the continuing development of 23-year-old third baseman Ryan Braun (batting .333 with eight homers and 17 RBIs in 30 games for Triple A Nashville), has the Brewers confident that they'll have the best infield in the majors for years to come.

Through Sunday they were in first place by 5 1/2 games even after losing seven of their last 10. "It's been a great start for us, but we're just starting," says Hardy. "It's going to be fun to see what we can do."

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