GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Unfortunately for Lonnie Chisenhall, what happens in spring training stays in spring training. So he can’t carry his .404 batting average into the regular season.
What he can do is take the swing that produced that glossy average with him to Toronto, where the Indians open the schedule against the Blue Jays.
If manager Terry Francona has said it once, he’s said it a dozen times: “All Lonnie has to do is make sure he picks pitches in the zone that he can handle.”
For the first time in his career, Chisenhall didn’t have to fight for a spot on the roster when he came to training camp. For two consecutive springs, Chisenhall finished second to Jack Hannahan, a career bench player who was offensively challenged but played outstanding defense at third. Now Hannahan is gone and it’s Chisenhall’s time.
“Compared to the last two years, spring training is really different for me,” he said. “I’m able to take care of my work, and during games I can focus on having good at-bats instead of trying to impress people.”
Chisenhall already has impressed Francona.
“There’s something to be said for a guy who can flat-out hit a fastball,” the manager said. “Lonnie puts a lot of balls in play because he has good hand-eye coordination. He will square up a lot of balls in the middle of the plate.”
If Chisenhall is swinging with more authority and conviction, he thinks he knows why.
“I’m just thinking different up there,” he said. “I don’t have as much pressure on me. I’m taking singles in certain counts and trying to do damage in certain counts. I feel a little smarter than I did last season. I don’t know what happened last year, but I wasn’t feeling it.”
What Chisenhall was feeling might have been stress.
“Probably a lot of things built up,” he said. “My swing didn’t feel great, and I wasn’t confident in myself. I had a lot of stuff on my plate, trying to make the team. It was a snowball effect. There were things going on in my head.”
Chisenhall’s major league experience has been limited, partly because of Hannahan and partly because of weird injuries. He got hit in the face two years ago, and he broke his arm last year.
“My injuries are a little different,” he said. “But the good thing is I don’t handle the bat the same way (because of the fracture). There are certain things I can do now that I couldn’t do before.
“It actually helped me with my throws. My ball doesn’t run anymore, because the flexibility in my wrist is less than it was. Now, I’m throwing the ball straight.”
For his big league career, Chisenhall is batting .260 with 12 home runs and 38 RBIs in 354 at-bats. It’s hard to say if those numbers are a clue to his future.
As a left-handed batter, there are questions about Chisenhall’s ability to hit left-handed pitchers. He is batting only .184 against lefties but has faced them only 38 times.
“Who knows what I can do against left-handed pitchers?” he said. “I haven’t played enough against them to have a big enough sample.
“I’m going to hit right-handers better than I do lefties. That’s what just about every left-handed hitter does. I’ll have some growing pains, but I also will have some good at-bats and have some success.”
When Chisenhall drove a ball to left-center off a left-hander earlier in camp, Francona said: “Nice to see him against a lefty. When he drives the ball the other way against a lefty, you know he’s doing something right.”
Chisenhall’s defense also has been called into question, but that criticism might be fading away.
“I think he has room to grow,” Francona said. “But the other day I called him an average major league third baseman, and that’s not a bad thing.”
Now that Chisenhall has a secure place on the team, all his cares have disappeared. Or have they?
“I worry about doing the smaller things to help the team win,” he said. “Like when there’s a runner on third with less than two outs, I have to get him in. I know it’s not my job to carry the team on my back, but I do want to improve my defense and run the bases well.”
And if Chisenhall doesn’t hit .404 during the season, well, he can live with that.
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