By Sean McAdam
BOSTON -- Like most Red Sox fans, Dave Magadan is frustated by the team's failures with runners in scoring position in the first two weeks of the season.
Unlike those Red Sox fans, it's his job to fix the problem.
Through their 11-game stumble, which has them lodged in the bottom of the American League East standings, the Sox have hit a lowly .192 with RISP; in the last four games, they're just 7-for-52.
The .192 batting average ranks them 29th in baseball, ahead of only the Los Angeles Dodgers. Meanwhile, they're also ranked next-to-last in OBP with RISP (.267) and next-to-last in slugging (.240).
Magadan, however, has noted improvement -- if not necessarily better results -- of late.
"Actually, I've been pretty pleased with our at-bats, especially lately,'' said Magadan. "All we can is try to hit the ball hard.''
Magadan then recounted a half-dozen or so at-bats in which the Red Sox ran into bad luck -- Kevin Youkilis's hard line drive to second base Monday night that instead of resulting in runs scoring produced a double play being the most obvious.
"All I can ask guys to do is have good at-bats,'' Magadan said, "hit the ball hard and try to stay to the big part of the field. And I think, for the most part, that's what we've done. I feel like this whole homestand, we've had pretty good at-bats with runners in scoring position.
"Just because you don't get a hit doesn't mean it wasn't a good at-bat.''
Problem is, they haven't resulted in much offense. In their loss to the Yankees last Saturday, the Sox were an abysmal 1-for-17. Things weren't much better on Monday when they were just 2-for-12. In consecutive losses, then, the Sox were 3-for-29.
Still, numbers aside, the Sox have shown improvement since their season-opening road trip, according to Magadan. As bad as things have been in the first five games at Fenway, they were worse when the Sox were being swept by the Indians in Cleveland last week.
"On the road trip, yes we struggled,'' acknowledged Magadan. "We had some poor at-bats, we chased pitcher's pitches early in the count, we weren't aggressive on pitches we should have been aggressive on.''
Ironically, Magadan saw things begin to turn in the road trip finale when the Sox were shut out by Indians starter Fausto Carmona.
"I felt like from a hitting coach's standpoint,'' Magadan said, "I felt OK with the at-bats we had. We hit some balls hard. Sometimes you have to give the credit to the other team. You might have a guy who's making pitches. And Tampa's one of the best teams in terms of aligning their defense. It seems like every time we hit a hard ground ball, it's right at the infielder. Or a hard line drive is right at the outfielder.
"That's a credit to them and the pitchers hitting their spot and the defense playing according to how the pitcher is pitching.''
Then, there's the pure randomness of some results. Case in point: Jason Varitek, hitting right-handed Tuesday night, hit an opposite-field line drive to right early in the count of his fifth-inning at-bat. Improbably, Tampa Bay outfielder Ben Zobrist needed to take just five steps to snare the ball.
"That's something we really can't control,'' said Magadan. "All we can do is hit the ball hard. As a hitting coach, or as a hitter for that matter, I can't control what happens after the ball comes off the bat. All you can do is get yourself in a good hitter's count, get a good pitch to hit and hit it hard.
"If we're doing that, which I think we have for the most part on this homestand, eventually that's going to even out. It's a small sample size -- 11 games. We don't want to be 2-9. We don't want to be hitting .228 overall as a team. But I think, over the long haul, I like our chances if we continue to have good at-bats.''
Magadan knows what the numbers say, and more importantly, where the won-loss record stands. But by other indicators, Magadan sees reason to believe things aren't as bad as they seem.
On Tuesday night, in a 3-2 loss to the Rays, the Red Sox counted 15 hard-hit balls - "That's a stat we keep.'' Problem was, the Sox got just five hits for their work.
"Yeah, I'd like to have banged out 15 hits,'' said Magadan. "But we don't control that. I was actually pretty happy with our at-bats against a really good pitcher David Price. You really can't do anything about it. I've got to look it as if we're having a good at-bats, we're getting good pitches to hit and we're putting good swings on those pitchers . . . as a hitting coach I'm happy with that.
"I think that bodes well. As the season unfolds, I like our chances to correct that stat.''
Magadan spent most of Wednesday's washout at Fenway working with hitters taking extra batting practice in the indoor cage. But these days, he's focused as much on the hitter's mental approach as he his with the mechanics of their swings.
"No question,'' he said. "It doesn't matter who you are, whether's it Youk Kevin Youkilis or Jed Lowrie or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, you battle yourself mentally and you get to the point where you're trying to get two hits every at-bat. You try to calm guys down, remind them to get take a breath during at-bats and just relax.
"Good hitters, when they're hitting, are very relaxed. Guys that are showing a lot of tension, looking like they're ready to squeeze the bat in two, those are usually the guys who don't have a lot of confidence going into his at-bat.''
Wednesday's rainout and Thursday's scheduled off-day might be a good break for the hitters, whom, Magadan maintains, are getting closer to being rewarded for their approach.
For a team searching for answers early in the season, that can't come soon enough.