The Braves have seen their share of careers go careening off the tracks. Recently, there’s been Jordan Schafer or Greg Norton, or even a Jeff Francoeur. A little deeper in the memory bank are images of a scuffling Reggie Sanders, or Raul Mondesi, or maybe the steady decline of Andruw Jones, foreshadowing his drop-off in Los Angeles.
What’s unusual about Nate McLouth is that a miserable 2010 season popped up in the midst of his prime, at age 28, and only two years removed from making the National League All-Star team with the Pirates.
But what’s even more unusual about McLouth is that he’s showing signs of coming back. It didn’t take a trade to another team, a fresh start somewhere else, before it started happening.
While the Braves went in search of another center fielder, trading for Rick Ankiel, McLouth was in Triple-A Gwinnett fighting his way back.
He has hit .310 (9-for-29) with eight RBIs in 12 games since his return from the minor leagues, and Ankiel has taken a seat on the bench in a serious slump of his own. That McLouth’s season average is still only .187 tells you a little about how far he’s had to climb.
“It’s been a relief,” McLouth said. “I’m just trying to build on each good at-bat and good piece of contact that I’ve been making.”
McLouth started a game Sept. 5 in Florida and turned it into seven starts over the next 11 days. He played in nine overall in that stretch and had hits in seven of them, including a pair of home runs against the Cardinals. He would have had two more homers if not for over-the-fence, home-run robbing catches by Cameron Maybin, who took a grand slam away that first game in Florida, and Colby Rasmus on Sunday against the Cardinals.
“I’m about sick of that,” McLouth said with a smile. “I’ve had just as many hard line drives that have been outs, but it’s definitely a good sign.”
Since the first week of spring training until the afternoon of July 27, when general manager Frank Wren and manager Bobby Cox told McLouth they were sending him to the minors, it has been a struggle.
McLouth had developed an exaggerated upper cut in his swing and an overly aggressive approach at the plate. Those were big enough challenges even before he missed six weeks recovering from a concussion after his outfield collision with Jason Heyward. He hit .168 in his first 62 games.
“It was probably the toughest time in my life because I, just, was lost,” McLouth said. “I wanted nothing more than to perform well and help the team win. To work hard every day and not be able to do that for such a long period of time was tough.”
Before he arrived in Gwinnett, Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton called Gwinnett hitting coach Jamie Dismuke to pass on their plan, work on shortening his stride and commanding the strike zone. Without the pressures of results, McLouth started to regain some confidence.
“I gradually started playing again, instead of working,” said McLouth, who hit .234 with six homers and 18 RBIS in 34 games for Gwinnett.
He returned to the Braves' clubhouse Aug. 31 as an early September call-up, a day before the rookie group. His old locker by Brian McCann was being used by Derrek Lee, so he now sets up shop on the outer edges of the clubhouse, along rookie row with players such as Cristhian Martinez and Mike Minor.
McLouth was just glad that being called up before Sept. 1 meant the Braves wanted him for the postseason roster. He took that positive reinforcement and kept working.
Last week in Pittsburgh, McLouth turned a conversation with Chipper Jones about hitting into a round of swings in the batting cage and a session together at the video monitor.
For so many weeks, “staying on his back side” was a point of focus for McLouth, but seeing Jones demonstrate good weight transfer made something click. Jones talked about hitting balls through the wall and not over it, hitting down on balls to create backspin. In his next three games, McLouth homered twice and tripled.
“He very easily could have hit three homers [Sunday] night,” Jones said. “For him to have made that drastic a turnaround in a week tells you that he’s doing everything just right. ... He’s getting in good hitter’s counts, and when they come across the plate he’s smoking them.”
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