Thursday October 20th, 2011

ST. LOUIS -- A check swing is a violent motion. A hitter begins to unleash a forceful cut at the baseball, only to decide at the last possible instant to arrest his accelerating momentum and torque as his lower-body swivels toward the speeding baseball.

When Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton tried to stop his swing on a 1-1 pitch in the fourth inning of Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night, he failed to control the bat head for strike two and, almost as noticeably, failed to disguise how uncomfortable he was.

Hamilton, the 2010 American League MVP and a four-time All-Star, is playing this postseason with a strained groin -- he told a Dallas radio station on Saturday night that he was "about 50 percent" healthy in the ALCS, though he pledged to "give 100 percent of my 50 percent" -- which is plenty admirable but is keeping him from being as productive as the Rangers need him to be if they are to win their first World Series title.

In Texas'' 3-2 loss in Game 1, Hamilton went 0-for-4 with a two flyouts, a strikeout and a groundout. He looked off-balance against lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes in the eighth inning when he managed a harmless flyball to centerfield.

Typically an outfielder with good range, Hamilton instead moved gingerly around center for the first six innings before being shifted to left in the seventh. He made every possible play, but on one deep fly to center in the fourth inning, St. Louis' Lance Berkman, who's no speed demon, tagged from first and advanced to second, a move he almost assuredly doesn't attempt if not for Hamilton not being able to track down the ball quickly enough to get in position to throw to second.

It's clear that Hamilton is hurting and Game 1 notwithstanding -- the Rangers faced a tough starter in Chris Carpenter, and the 48-degree temperatures surely didn't help the offense -- he's become a singles and doubles hitter. This postseason he is 12-for-45 (.267) with five doubles but no home runs. The overall numbers aren't glaring but the lack of drive and pop off his bat are.

Hamilton last homered on Sept. 23, a drought of 15 games. He's had six longer regular-season homerless streaks in his career, but only one in the last two seasons, a 19-game drought from July 20 to Aug. 9 of this summer.

Last week Hamilton indicated that the pain is mostly on his left side, which connects to his back leg, a necessary font of power. He told reporters at Tuesday's media availability that he feels the same even after three days of rest between the two series. He skipped last Friday's optional workout to further rest and treat it.

Hamilton did not address reporters in the clubhouse after Wednesday night's Game 1 -- a team spokesman said he was getting treatment -- but that weekend radio interview offered a glimpse as to how much the injury is affecting him.

"We got a lot of power on the team, so I'm definitely not concerning myself with hitting home runs and producing that way," Hamilton told Dallas' ESPN 103.3 FM.

That's not the Hamilton the Rangers have come to depend on. Since arriving before the 2008 season he has averaged a homer every 19.9 at bats and has slugged .541, which ranks fifth in the majors among players who played at least 400 games in the last four seasons.

In this year's playoffs, however, Hamilton is slugging just .378, more than 160 points below his rate from the last four regular seasons. It's unfortunate déjà vu for the Rangers. In last year's World Series Hamilton went 2-for-20, though he did hit a solo homer in Texas' lone victory, which came in Game 3.

Teams seem to have caught on, too, as Hamilton has walked only twice in 49 plate appearances in the postseason. He's never walked a ton -- he's drawn bases on balls in 8.1 percent of all PAs in his career -- but that rate, like his health, is about half what it normally is, at just 4.1 percent.

Hamilton is an otherworldly talent at the plate and typically one of the game's most feared hitters. Surely it would surprise no one if the power returned at any time, but until it does, Texas' lineup has been bottom-heavy.

Currently none of the Rangers' Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters is a major power threat. Young batted an outstanding .338 this season but his career-high 106 RBIs were due to the sheer volume of his hits with runners on base -- 114 of his 213 hits for the season -- not because of his power. In fact, Young hit only 11 home runs all season, and the No. 2 hitter, Elvis Andrus, only has 11 for his career. Those two plus Hamilton have combined for just one home run in 134 at-bats this postseason.

The pop from the next third of the lineup -- Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli and Nelson Cruz have batted fifth through seventh in some order -- has masked the month-long power drought of the preceding hitters, combining for 11 home runs in 126 at-bats.

Texas manager Ron Washington has been reluctant to tweak his batting order based on hot and cold streaks. Exhibit A is that he stuck with Young as his No. 4 hitter even though he began the playoffs 4-for-32 with no extra-base hits, and he responded by going 5-for-11 in his next two games. Exhibit B is that Nelson Cruz batted seventh for the entire ALCS despite crushing six home runs in as many games (though he did move to sixth for the World Series opener), perhaps because this is the same Cruz who went 1-for-15 in the ALDS.

Players go in and out of streaks so easily that patience with the lineup is probably the best choice, especially when dealing with the caliber of hitters the Rangers have. If there's a change to be made, it's to move Andrus -- who was relegated to a sacrifice bunt in the sixth inning of Game 1 -- out of the No. 2 hole and to play Craig Gentry in centerfield, which would allow Hamilton to play left. The latter will surely be the move in Game 2 against lefty starter Jaime Garcia since Gentry is righthanded and leftfielder David Murphy is lefthanded.

Most of all, the Rangers simply need Josh Hamilton to return to being Josh Hamilton.

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