Encarnacion confident in his abilities
Despite struggling this spring, third baseman knows it'll come
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- When third baseman Edwin Encarnacion got off to an awful start last season, the Reds demoted him.Now that Encarnacion has spring numbers that are riper than a compost heap under a hot sun, is there concern another rough start is looming? "Not really," manager Dusty Baker said. "You have to look at the back of his bubblegum card and you know guys that hit are going to hit. Right now, he's off. He's going to stay back [Wednesday] and do a lot of hitting." This spring, Encarnacion is batting .172 (10-for-58) with one home run and 11 RBIs. In Tuesday's 5-3 over the Phillies, he was 1-for-5 and rolled a soft two-run single through the left side. Encarnacion began 2007 hitting just .218 with one homer through his first 31 games. After Cincinnati sent him to Triple-A Louisville for about two weeks, he returned and became one of the club's best hitters. Over his final 108 games, Encarnacion batted .307, and he posted a .289 average in 139 big league games overall with 16 home runs and 76 RBIs -- all career highs. "I know it's going to come," Encarnacion said. "I know I can play this game like I played the last four months in the big leagues last year. I'm going to be OK, no matter how I start this year. Hopefully, I'll start hot and finish hot." Encarnacion has three big league seasons behind him, which makes it difficult at times to remember that he is still just 25 years old and prone to young-player mistakes. Watching him lately, Baker has noticed that Encarnacion has had trouble with pitches on the outside corner of the plate. Baker plans to huddle with him and hitting coach Brook Jacoby. "I've seen a couple of things I could possibly suggest," Baker said. "I know it's starting to bother him. He seems like the kind of guy that internalizes everything. Outside, he appears like it's not bothering him. That's his demeanor inside. When he was hot, [former Cubs star] Shawon Dunston used to say, 'I'm sleeping like Tony Gwynn sleeps all the time.' When you're not hitting, you're not sleeping. You can go to sleep, but you can't stay asleep."
One area where Encarnacion belies his youth is during pressure situations. He's a career .317 hitter with nine homers and 137 RBIs in 354 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Last season, he was a .360 with RISP.Defensively, Encarnacion has continued to work. In 2006, he committed a team-high 25 errors. Last season, it was trimmed to 16 errors, but just 10 were made following his return from Triple-A in late May. "I saw from when he first came into this league. If he caught it, quite often he'd throw it away," Baker said. "Now his throws are truer. [Bench/infield coach] Chris Speier has been working with him, much like he did with [Cubs third baseman] Aramis Ramirez to help make him a lot better. It's about footwork and quickness. He has the hands and he definitely has the arm." Under Jerry Narron, Encarnacion seemed to a frequent guest in the former manager's doghouse. Part of it stemmed from the frequent fielding errors and myriad of inconsistencies at the plate. One time early last season, he was benched for not running out a popup he thought was foul. Baker has chosen a different tact with Encarnacion, offering a reassuring hand while he's struggled this spring. Often when the two talk, Baker does it in Spanish so his player can understand instruction in his first language. "Before, nobody talked to me like he's doing right now," Encarnacion said. "He's helped me a lot. He's talked to me a lot. He's given me confidence. When you have a manager like that who talks to a player and explains to him how you're going to do it, you feel great. You feel comfortable. You know you have to play hard always for him and forget about everything else."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.