|Hit streak over, Hunter hopes to keep it going at the plate|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 10 May 2007 15:55|
``Now I can swing hard again,'' Hunter said, smiling as he reflected on the end of his 23-game hitting streak following Minnesota's 3-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Thursday.
Streaks of such length are more common for contact hitters, not aggressive guys like Hunter - who never saw a first pitch he didn't like and frequently swings for the fence.
Two months before his 32nd birthday, however, Hunter has reached a new high at the plate in what might be his final season with the Twins after changing his stance and approach late last summer.
``Some people, their skills diminish,'' Hunter said, preferring to keep his success a secret as he sat in front of his clubhouse stall before Thursday's game. ``I feel like I'm getting better, because I've had to learn a lot more.''
Growing up poor in Pine Bluff, Ark., Hunter didn't have much instruction until he got to high school and later became Minnesota's first-round draft pick in 1993. Playing center field and running around the bases always came naturally, but his hitting has often been up and down - streaks and slumps mixed with many adjustments.
Last year, Hunter - a .271 career hitter - hit his stride.
He hit six home runs in August and batted .311 with 10 homers and 29 RBIs in the final month of the regular season to help the Twins win their division. This year, thanks to the hitting streak, Hunter is batting .328 with six homers, 22 RBIs and 15 doubles.
``It's fun, man,'' he said, exhibiting the peace and positive attitude he often spoke about this spring.
His leadership and Gold Glove defense - highlighted by that falling-down, over-the-shoulder catch with the bases loaded on Wednesday night - have always been most valuable to the Twins. But Hunter has been the only one hitting in a sputtering lineup so far this season.
Reigning batting champ Joe Mauer and left fielder Rondell White are hurt, and third baseman Nick Punto and shortstop Jason Bartlett haven't done nearly as well as they did last summer. First baseman Justin Morneau, the league MVP last year, also is struggling to find his stroke.
``I just think Torii's handled himself very well,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said recently. ``There's a lot of issues out there with his contract and everything, and the one thing that's impressive to me is that he's not letting it overtake him. He's just playing baseball and trying to win baseball games, and I think that's a sign of where he's at in his career and how much he understands the game.''
Making $12 million this season, Hunter will be a free agent in the fall and figures to command the kind of hefty contract that typically transcends the Twins' budget.
For now, though, he's just trying to find the right balance between being patient and aggressive at the plate and help pull his team out of an early season funk that has them in fourth place in the AL Central at 17-17 entering the weekend.
This basics-first club has not been fundamentally sound, making several uncharacteristic mistakes on the bases and in the field that pushed a frustrated Gardenhire to address the team during a closed-door meeting after Thursday's game.
``We don't have guys that are going to hit 40 or 50 home runs, so when we don't do the little things like move the guy over, get the guy in and make the plays defensively, that's going to bite us every time,'' Punto said.