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Albies emerging from slump; Inciarte next?

A hitting coach notices a flaw or glitch that has developed in a hitter’s swing or approach, or sees something that pitchers are doing to get him out, and brings that to the hitter’s attention so that he can work on it and get out of a slump.

But try doing than when a hitter, despite a recent slip in results, still leads the league in several major categories.

Such was the case recently with Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. 

Perhaps no hitter in the National League was better during the first month or more of the season than Albies, who was the youngest player in the majors at the outset of the season and posted tremendous statistics for more than a month, then cooled off a little in May but still ranked at or near the top of the league in most power-hitting categories and was still hitting .280 as late as May 25.

But there was definitely some cooling off, entirely forseeable and not significant at first, then glaring for a stretch of nearly three weeks beginning in late May.

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> In his first 32 games through May 5, Albies hit .288 with 24 extra-base hits including, 10 homers, a .327 OBP and league-best .612 slugging percentage (.938 OPS).

> In his next 15 games through May 22, he hit .281 with seven extra-base hits (four homers), a .333 OBP and .531 slugging percentage for a still-robust .865 OPS.

> In his next 17 games through Saturday, Albies hit .162 (12-for-74) with four doubles, no homers, one RBI, a .215 OBP and .216 slugging percentage (.431 OPS).

Then he homered Sunday at Los Angeles off a hot pitcher, Ross Stripling. And after the team’s day off Monday, Albies hit a grand slam Tuesday against Mets right-hander Paul Sewald, and Seitzer and manager Brian Snitker lauded Albies not just for the pitches crushed but also for pitches he took for balls in both of the games in which he homered.

What’s been the key to Albies snapping out of his funk?

“Approach,” Seitzer said. “Not so pull-happy. Got him focused on really trying to beat the (defensive) shift. It’s allowing him to see the ball better, get in better hitting counts, stay shorter and use his hands, and that’s huge for him. 

“He got a little too pull-happy. Hitting a lot of homers is great, and it can be a curse at the same time. Because the league started making adjustments in how they’re pitching him. So we’ve got him thinking more shift-beating as opposed to kill the ball.”

It says a lot about how torried was the pace Albies set for the first six weeks that he remained the NL leader in extra-base hits with 37 before Wednesday, with teammate Freddie Freeman next at 33 and no other NL player having more than 31. Albies was also second in the league with 16 homers, behind Bryce Harper (19), and Albies’ 19 doubles were one behind teammate and NL leader Nick Markakis.

Try telling the league’s extra-base hits leader than he needs to change this or that when what he was doing had him ranked among league leaders and the top vote-getter among NL second baseman when the first All-Star fan balloting update was announced this week.

“Exactly. And can’t blame him,” Seitzer said. “All you can do is keep encouraging, planting seeds, picking your spots when you’re doing it. You don’t want to beat on him daily. And that’s the hard part, when you see what they’re doing, you know the adjustments that he needs to make – easier said than done. I mean, it’s not that he wasn’t trying to do it long before the last few days. 

“He was fouling stuff off the other way every time he tried to go that way (to opposite field), and then he’s in grind mode. And picking his spots, thinking, ‘Maybe they’re going to rush me right here,’ and they didn’t. And so, the soft-contact rollovers, swinging and missing, and you get caught in-between a little bit (between fastballs and off-speed). 

“What we talked about a few days ago was 100 percent sell-out to beating the (defensive) shift. And all of a sudden he hits a homer, gets a first-pitch breaking ball -- and beats the shift on a first-pitch breaking ball, which he hadn’t done that in weeks. So that was huge, and he laid off a lot of fastballs up that last game (Sunday) in L.A. So it’s a huge sign of progress.”

Seitzer added, “He tries; they all try. It’s just that once you get your toehold, everything gets fast, and the adrenaline, and you want to do good and hit the ball hard. It’s just a matter of slowing everything down and staying committed to your plan and approach, and he’s been doing a better job.”

Indeed, after hitting his second grand slam of the season Tuesday and homering for the second game in a row, Albies said he spent a lot of time with Seitzer recently and, “I feel much better, I just had to slow the game down again.”

Now that Albies is showing signs of heating up again, the Braves hope to get center fielder Ender Inciarte going. He slumped early, as he does most seasons, but after a brief surge Inciarte returned to slump mode, uncharacteristic of the two-time Gold Glove winner.

Inciarte hit just .244 with a .302 OBP and .638 OPS in 74 games before Wednesday,

“We’re working on it,” Seitzer said. “I told Snit (Braves manager Brian Snitker) last night, I said I think he’s on his way right now. This is the first time I’ve felt that way. Not because he got a couple of bloop hits (Tuesday), but just because mentally I feel like the last couple of days he’s getting himself into a less pissed-off state and more, ‘OK, this is what I need to do.’ He’s had a hard time staying committed to what I feel he needs to stay committed to, just because he wasn’t having any success.”

Inciarte, who led the majors in stolen bases with 20 before Wednesday, had two steals and two run-scoring flare singles to shallow left field Tuesday.

“He’d try to go the other way and (pop out), then he’d try to pull and roll over (ground out),” Seitzer said of his struggles this season. “Then get caught in-between (fastballs and off-speed pitches) reacting to strikes – he’s had a frustrating year. But I feel like it’s going to get better now. This is the first time I can say that. 

“He’s such a perfectionist, and it kills him when he’s not having really good at-bats. I love him, man. I love him. Sometimes it’s just like, you reach a spot where you go, OK, we’ve tried everything, now let’s try the last thing. So, we’ll see.”

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