Bradley Jr. always confident he'd start to hit

Bradley Jr. always confident he'd start to hit
July 7, 2014, 1:15 am
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BOSTON -- It felt familiar. It felt comfortable. It was a return to that which helped make him the player he had always been.

Jackie Bradley Jr.'s batting stance changed only slightly -- he opened up, sliding his right foot to point more toward the first-base foul line -- but it has paid big dividends for his comfort level at the plate.

Ever since he made the adjustment just before the start of a 10-game road trip on the West Coast at the end of June, Bradley Jr. has raised his batting average 16 points. Though he's still hitting just .218, that's the highest that number has been since May 13.

He had what was likely his best game of the season in Sunday’s 7-6 extra-inning loss to Baltimore. His sublime defensive work was once again on display as he made a game-saving leaping catch against the wall in the ninth inning, and he notched his team-leading 10th outfield assist when he threw out Manny Machado trying to tag and score to end the seventh.

But Bradley Jr. also continued to make strides offensively as he went 2-for-4 with a run scored and an 11-pitch walk in the fifth inning.

“The extra work that he’s been doing is starting to pay off,” manager John Farrell said. “He’s starting to reproduce a more consistent swing path, using the whole field, particularly the left side of the field as we’ve seen in the past.

“He’s in a pretty good place confidence-wise. A couple of really key defensive plays today with a catch up against the wall. Throws another guy out at home plate. Playing with much more confidence over the last two-to-three weeks.”

Bradley Jr. has recorded at least one hit and scored one run in each of his last four games, and he has 13 hits in his last 44 at-bats, giving him a .295 average in that span. He credits his altered stance with helping him get there.

"It allows me to see the ball with both eyes," he said. "It was a comfort thing for me. That was the way I hit before. And I personally wanted to go back to what was working for me. Nobody told me anything. No hitting coach told me I should open back up. No, personally, I felt like that was what was comfortable to me so I made the change and went on with it."

Bradley Jr. had an open stance as a player at South Carolina and even before that at Prince George High School in Virginia.

Before making the change in Oakland, he had just one hit in 12 at-bats. When he went back to his old stance on June 19, he didn’t need a few days to get the feel for it in batting practice.

“It's like riding a bike, you know?” he said. “If you hadn't ridden a bike in 20 years, you could still get back on the bike and ride. Just because it's something you always been accustomed to and something that you learned at a young age. It’s something you’ve done pretty much your whole life.”

When Bradley Jr. exploded in Red Sox spring training in 2013 and his name became the play thing of talk radio shows in Boston, his stance was open. It wasn’t until he stumbled in his first two weeks of big-league ball (he hit .097 in April) that he began to tinker with the placement of his feet in the batter’s box.

There were well-founded reasons for the switch; it wasn’t some shot-in-the-dark solution. But it never really felt right.

“I guess it was just to make sure my direction is going in the right way, just letting the ball travel so I can have some direction,” Bradley Jr. said. “But there's no right or wrong way to hit. You can't cookie-cut every single hitter. I just needed to get away from trying to make that change and getting back to what was comfortable for me.”

As he returns to what feels good at the plate, he hopes to distance himself from the issues that plagued him for most of this season. Before Sunday's game, he explained that he was always confident that this run of all-around production was on the horizon.

“Just knowing for myself that what you've seen of me is pretty much just glimpses,” he explained. “I guess you've seen some good, seen a lot of bad. I feel like the best is yet to come. You're gonna go through those struggles, especially as a rookie. You're gonna go through those struggles as you're playing this game for a long time. But just knowing that the better times are yet to come. If you consistently work hard and continue to compete, good things are gonna happen for you.”

Bradley Jr. had some experience handling these kinds of prolonged tough stretches well before this season.

In 2011, adversity came knocking during his junior year at South Carolina when he struggled early in the season – the year college players become draft eligible again – and then broke his wrist. His chances of becoming a top-end first-round pick had been wiped away, and the Red Sox nabbed him later in the first round at No. 40 overall.

As much as that episode in his young career may have disappointed him – never mind how it cost his bank account – it taught him something that has served him this year.

“In those things, that's where you really discover a lot of things about yourself when you're going through the struggle,” he said. “People find out a lot of things about you. They learn about you. They don't necessarily care how you are when you're doing very well. Everyone knows how to handle things when they're doing very well. Everyone wants to see when you're not doing so well, are you going to change as a person. What are you going to do to counteract that to get out of that? A lot of people, me personally when someone struggles, you want to see what are they doing to counteract that. Are they gonna be different around you? Or are they gonna be angry constantly? Or are they gonna be that same teammate that they've always been?”

By all accounts, Bradley Jr. has been the same teammate – the one who looks forward to sacrificing his body in the field to help his pitchers, chipping in defensively when he couldn't at the plate.

Even when fellow rookie Mookie Betts was called to the Sox to help their outfield depth late last month, thereby taking opportunities away from the warming bat of Bradley Jr., the 24-year-old did his best to welcome the 21-year-old. The newly crowded outfield served no motivational purpose. 

“Maybe personally for some people, but not me,” Bradley Jr. said. “I'm going to focus and do what I can to help the team out and control what I can control. That's just play the game. Maybe it might motivate other guys, but I see [Betts] as a teammate who can help the team out to ultimately win. That's what we want. We want players who are on the same page and are willing to do whatever it takes to win.”

With a highlight-filled day Sunday to add to his string of recent success, Bradley Jr. has reminded anyone watching that he has the tools to contribute in myriad ways to a winner.

Though for some that reality may have been clouded by the Mendoza Line for a time, Bradley Jr. saw it all along.

“You stick true to yourself,” he said. “I'm a pretty even-keeled guy. When things are going good, I'm never really too up. When things are going bad, I'm never really too down. Just try to keep that happy medium and I think that's what helps me deal with a lot of adversity, knowing that tough times are only going to last a little while.”