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National Post

Rios A Hit Everywhere But With The Long Ball

Just One Homer This Year: 'When It Comes To His Swing He Has No Idea'

By John Lott

3 May 2005
Copyright © 2005 National Post. All rights reserved.

BALTIMORE - For Alex Rios, doing what comes naturally is no longer enough.

After less than a full year in the big leagues, Rios is batting .330 and leading the league in triples with four. His defence is solid in right field. He owns a strong, accurate arm.

But in 514 major-league at bats, the 24-year-old Blue Jay has hit exactly one home run. Another oddity: he is a right-handed batter whose hits almost invariably go to right field.

His handlers say he has much to learn about the art of hitting. They stress that for now, they're not trying to pressure him to hit for more power, only to take the next important step on that road.

They also say that if Rios can refine his swing and develop a new set of hitting instincts, he could join the game's elite hitters.

"He's got a chance to be a star player," manager John Gibbons said. "We made a point of telling him not to try to hit home runs. We just want to get him to hit the ball to all fields, and use his legs more to get to the inside pitch."

In his typical manner, Mickey Brantley, the Jays' new hitting coach, minces no words when describing the challenge Rios faces.

"Alex is a young player, and when it comes to his swing, he has no idea what's supposed to happen, where it's supposed to happen and when it's supposed to happen," Brantley said.

But he is learning. In his past 23 at-bats, Rios has 11 hits, in part because Brantley has nudged him to raise his hands and attack the ball on a downward plane. When his hands were lower, he tended to loop his swing.

If there are questions about his power, they arise from the fact that Rios is 6-foot-5. Even at a lean 200 pounds, he looks like he should reach the fences.

Power hitters usually pull pitches. Rios has never been a pull hitter, not even as a kid in Puerto Rico. Hitting to the opposite field comes naturally, he says. When he pulls the ball, he tends to hit infield rollers.

"I think I'm so used to trying to stay up the middle and the other way, that when I try to pull the ball, I try to do too much," he said. "When I think about pulling the ball, I press and make myself out."

As a rookie last season, Rios batted .286. His 122 hits produced only 24 RBIs.

Brantley believes Rios can find more power through better understanding of hitting mechanics. The coach cited a lesson Rios learned yesterday in the batting cage.

"I asked him where his contact zone was for the power position, and he held the bat with both arms extended and stiff," Brantley said. "I grabbed the end of the bat and said, 'Don't let me push the bat back.' I pushed the bat all the way back."

Then Brantley showed Rios the preferred contact zone: with elbows bent, just before full arm extension.

Rios has never hit for power -- he had 20 homers in five-plus minor-league seasons -- but he did drive in 82 runs during his remarkable Double-A campaign in 2003, when he batted .352.

He says he is eager to improve his gap-to-gap offence, but insists he feels no pressure to hit homers.

"No, not right now. I'm just trying to get in my comfort zone, and after that, the home runs are going to come."

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