Friday, May 11, 2012

Josh Hamilton's Big Night

On Tuesday night, Josh Hamilton accomplished something only 15 other major league players have ever done, a feat nobody has achieved since Carlos Delgado did it nearly a decade ago on September 25th, 2003.  Many of the games's greatest sluggers, from Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron to Babe RuthHarmon Killebrew and Mark McGwire, never did it. 

As I'm sure you know by now, a few days ago Mr. Hamilton held his own home run derby in Camden Yards.  He belted four home runs as part of a perfect 5-for-5 performance that also included  eight RBI and a double for good measure.  It was one of the greatest offensive performances of all time.  Unfortunately, only 11,263 fans were on hand last night to witness history.

It all started rather innocently in Hamilton's final at-bat of the series opener on Monday, a 14-3 pounding of the first place Baltimore Orioles.  After a torrid April Hamilton had missed three games at the beginning of May with a sore back, and the layoff seemed to have disrupted his rhythm at the dish; he'd started the month slowly with just three hits, all singles, in his first fourteen at-bats.  He stepped in against a shaky Jason Berken, who'd just allowed Texas to score five runs and break the game wide open.  Hamilton's teammates had beaten Baltimore's pitching to a pulp, collecting 18 hits and scoring a dozen runs to that point.  Every starter recorded at least one base knock, except for Hamilton, who'd quietly gone 0-for-3 with a pair of walks.  With Elvis Andrus on second and two down, Berken started Hamilton off with a pair of balls.  Needing to throw a strike, he served up a meatball, a 91 mile per hour fastball right down the middle. Hamilton pounced on it, cranking a two-run homer to the mostly deserted center field bleachers.  He'd arrived late to the party, but hey, better late than never.

Little did we know, he was just getting warmed up.

The following evening he wasted no time getting into the swing of things.  After Andrus walked, on the very first pitch (a hanging curveball) he saw from Jake Arrieta, Hamilton lifted a fly ball deep to straightaway center field, just beyond the reach of a leaping Adam Jones for an ice-breaking two-run dinger.

He came up again in the third, with the score still 2-0 in favor of the Rangers.  After Andrus dropped down a bunt single with two outs, Hamilton got himself in a fastball count, 2-0, then blasted an opposite field home run, giving him three consecutive two-run bombs in his last three plate appearances (on just four pitches) as well as his fifth career multi-homer game.  Adrian Beltre, possibly inspired by his teammate's heavy hitting, followed suit with a solo shot.

Andrus flew out to lead off the top of the fifth, so with the bases empty Hamilton figured it wasn't worth his while to muscle up for another big fly.  Instead he settled for a double, ripping a fly ball into the right-center gap that landed about ten feet shy of the fence.  His teammates would strand him there, though, as Beltre whiffed and Michael Young grounded out.

In the top of the seventh, with one out and Elvis Andrus aboard (seeing a pattern here?) after chasing Arrieta from the game with a single, Buck Showalter brought in lefty Zach Phillips, perhaps hoping to neutralize the red-hot slugger or induce an inning-ending double play.  Hamilton wasn't phased by the southpaw, though, and launched a towering fly ball to dead center, over the wall and into the batter's eye for his first ever three-homer game.

He didn't have to wait long for his crack at a fourth homer.  The next inning he came up against sidewinder Darren O'Day, performing mop-up duty at this point, with Andrus on first once more.  Hamilton fell behind 0-2, but didn't miss O'Day's mistake and roped it over the centerfield wall.  Expressionless, e trotted around the bases as if it was just another long ball.  The crowd politely applauded.

Hamilton became the 16th major leaguer to swat four long balls in a game, and set an American League record with 18 total bases in one game (anybody else would be lucky to get 18 in one week), the most since Shawn Green racked up 19 during his four homer game on May 23rd, 2002.  He'd slugged five home runs in his past six at-bats, and coincidentally all of them were two-run dingers that plated his good luck charm Elvis Andrus (who scored more than a quarter of his season total for runs on Hamilton's big flies in a 24 hour span).  Guys can't pull that off against some soft tossing coach in batting practice, let alone facing live major league pitching.  Most impressively, four of his bombs went to dead center, a reflection of his incredible power as well as his perfect timing at the plate.  He's obviously seeing the ball well and is letting it come to him.  This dude is locked in right now, and we've seen what he can do when he gets in a groove at the plate (remember the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium?).  In addition, Hamilton's historic performance pushed him past Matt Kemp for the major league lead in home runs and RBI.  He's also pacing the bigs in batting average, slugging percentage, and total bases.

It was fitting that Hamilton, who some refer to as "The Natural" delivered this Roy Hobbsian performance.  For every Willie Mays and Mike Schmidt that pulled it off, there was a Pat Seerey and Mark Whiten, a relative nobody who somehow managed to crank out four moon shots in a single game.  Hamilton, already a four time All-Star and MVP winner, is a player of great stature who attracts his fair share of attention on the field and off.  This game should be remembered as a perfect microcosm of his career, because when he plays he's one of the greatest, most dynamic players in baseball.    He keeps fans on the edge of their seats, because nobody knows when he's going to make a spectacular play or hurt himself and wind up on the DL. In that regard, his combination of volatility, natural talent, propensity for injury, and personal baggage draws parallels to Mickey Mantle.

Hamilton's clearly having a special season (wonder if the contract year is having any effect on him), and looks like a strong bet to win his second MVP in three seasons.  It couldn't come at a better time for the free agent to be, who should have plenty of bargaining power when it's time to negotiate in the winter.  If he stays healthy he could make a legitimate run at becoming the first player since Carl Yastrzemski to win a Triple Crown; he's already won a batting title and led the league in RBI, which will come in bunches because of his stellar supporting cast.  All he has to do is keep up the home run pace, because he's never hit more than 32 in a season, but 40 is looking like a very real possibility.

And even though the rain washed away his encore performance on Wednesday, he came right back and crushed another home run during the back end of Thursday's double-header.  Let the good times roll.

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