ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Bruce Bochy sensed that Brandon Belt was squeezing the bat, and not in the colloquial way that players do when they’re pressing.
Belt was literally squeezing the bat. He kept floating to the front of the batter’s box, too. That’s why the Giants’ manager wanted to sit down Belt for the three-game series earlier this week at Philadelphia.
He didn’t send Belt to a corner. He sent him to the cage.
Belt worked on the grip and swing adjustments and they made an immediate impact Friday night. He hit the tying home run in the fifth inning, the go-ahead triple in the seventh and finished a double short of the cycle while leading the Giants to a 4-1 victory over a very good Tampa Bay Rays club at Tropicana Field.
Sure, the presence of Brett Pill, who finally brought his hot bat from the Pacific Coast League, might have spurred Belt to action. His four-strikeout game last weekend against the Cubs got him to buy in, too.
And Belt was far from gleeful as he answered questions at his locker, saying more than once that “it’s just one game.”
You can’t get too high or too low, right?
Reporters, pundits and baseball observers always want to sit Belt on their leather chaise to analyze his mental makeup when things aren’t going well. (And measure the precise slump angle of his shoulders, while you’re at it.)
But hitting a baseball is both a physical and a mental act. For Belt, if anything mental was holding him back, it was a resistance to make physical changes.
He called his struggles “60/40 mechanical.”
“I’d say mentally, I’ve stayed in there pretty well,” he said. “But there are things I’ve been working on to tap into my ability a bit more.”
The first is his hands. He had a tendency to wrap, as Bochy put it. Hitting coaches Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens and Joe Lefebvre encouraged him to hold the bat more in his fingers. And that serves two purposes.
“First of all, I think it kind of relaxes me more to have that loose grip on the bat,” Belt said. “It keeps the bat in the zone longer in my swing, keeps it more flat, and that’s huge for me. If I can keep repeating that, hopefully I can make that jump.”
The second change is to move closer to the back line of the batter’s box. Belt said he’s always been a “see it and react” hitter, which has served him well. But it also makes him want to move up in the box so he’s ready to jump on pitches. That tendency has not served him well.
“It made a world of difference, seeing the ball longer,” said Belt, who singled on a first-pitch fastball from red-hot right-hander Chris Archer, homered on a first-pitch changeup and tripled to center on a 2-1 fastball after laying off two sliders thrown in the hopes he’d chase.
And when he led off the ninth, needing a double for the 11th cycle by a Giant in the club’s San Francisco era? Was he thinking of hitting one?
“I didn’t NOT think about it,” Belt said, with a sly smile.
His parents and in-laws made the trip from Texas. He hoped he could share that moment with them. Instead, he grounded out to second base.
But it was hard to be disappointed. He played in a big league game, he got an opportunity – and he made the most of it.
“Just being an athlete and being competitive, you want to be out there as much as possible,” said Belt, about taking the Philly series off. “But there are times you can look back and say, `Hey, that worked out.’”
Bochy had to take Belt aside again after Friday’s big game. Yes, his decision to start a first baseman Saturday against left-hander David Price became suddenly a tougher call. But he is sticking with Pill, since right-handers are hitting .261 and lefties are .216 against the 2011 Cy Young Award winner.
“I tell you, I like the path of his swing right now,” Bochy said of Belt. “But with Price going, and the way Pill’s been swinging … I told (Belt), `Don’t look at this as a platoon situation. But this guy is tough on lefties.’”
He sure was tough on Archer, who had a 0.29 ERA over his previous four starts – including a pair of shutouts – and was coming off a two-hitter at Yankee Stadium.
Archer talked about Belt as if he were facing Ted Williams.
“Everything I threw, Belt saw,” Archer said. “I threw him some good sliders he took. Fastball down, he crushed it. Fastball first pitch, he went the other way for a base hit. So I figured I'm going to try a changeup, you know? Mix it up. But he saw that well, too.”
OK, so let’s envision Belt back on that chocolate, top-grain leather again: Having Pill on the roster could be a distraction for him, or it could be motivation. Bochy hopes and believes it’s the latter.
“Well, I guess it’s always good to know you’re getting pushed a little bit,” Bochy said. “That’s not a bad thing in this game. That’s competition.”
Said Belt: “You know, it’s just being competitive. When one of your teammates does something, you want to match it. I’m still rooting for my team no matter whether I’m in there at first base or someone else is. I just have to worry about myself and if I play better, I’ll be out there.”
It’s a good bet he’ll be back out there Sunday, against Rays right-hander Roberto Hernandez. And whatever he does, good or bad, he won’t get too worked up over it.
This game is long, it is physically demanding and it is mentally punishing. And those adjustments? They’re constant.
“There’s always some nudging from the coaching staff on certain things,” said Belt, with a slight smile. “Sometimes it takes at-bats like I’ve had to make that commitment (to adjust).
“I want to be the best player I can and reach my potential.”