Rangers need Blalock to return to form
Third baseman's production has been in decline
ARLINGTON -- Mark Teixeira and Michael Young are threatening to leave Hank Blalock behind.They have all been linked together since 2003, when Teixeira broke into the Major Leagues as a rookie and Blalock went through his first full season as the Rangers third baseman. Since then, they have been the essential core around which the Rangers have been building. But, while Young and Teixeira have maintained a high level of production, Blalock's numbers have been in steady decline. Blalock hit .300 with 29 home runs and 90 RBIs in 2003, and .276 with 32 home runs and 110 RBIs in 2004, making the American League All-Star team in both seasons. But those numbers dropped to .263 with 25 home runs and 92 RBIs in 2005, and .266 with 16 home runs and 89 RBI in 2006. His OPS has gone from .872 in 2003 to .726 in 2006. Blalock had the 19th best OPS in the American League in 2003. He was 63rd last year. The Rangers need a turnaround season. Badly. On a team that lost Carlos Lee, Gary Matthews Jr., Mark DeRosa and Rod Barajas to free agency, the most burning issue on the Rangers is if they can get Blalock back to the level he was in 2003-04. "This season can't come quick enough for me," Blalock said. "I hated how last season ended like that. That eats at you. It's frustrating. We have a lot going on here: a new staff, new manager, new players brought in. Hopefully, I can make some adjustments and help this team tremendously." For Blalock, last season ended in pain, mentally and physically. He fought a sore right shoulder for much of the second half and hit .237 after the All-Star break. He hit .168 in September and, in the end, was rotating between third base, designated hitter and the bench. He still refuses to blame the shoulder for his struggles at the plate. "It really hurt to throw at the end of the year, but it didn't bother me to hit," Blalock said. "My hitting was a hitting problem, not an injury problem. My balance was terrible. When I was getting into a hitting position, I was off-balance and a lot of things were wrong. When you do that, there are only a small percentage of pitches you can handle. It's tough to hit that way." The shoulder was fixed by surgery at the end of the season. The hitting mechanics are the project of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. They have been together five years, but Blalock is taking a different approach this season. "In the past, Rudy has worked with what I do as a hitter," Blalock said. "We're going to switch that this year. I'm going to try to take advantage of Rudy's expertise, some of the things that he believes in and that have worked with other players. I'm going to trust it, stick with it and see how it works out." Jaramillo wants Blalock to stay back more -- rather than jump out at the ball -- to see the ball longer, trust his mechanics and use all fields. Blalock has become a notorious pull hitter with a tendency to overswing, and he has faced extreme defensive shifts. That wasn't the case early in his career. "There's no doubt Hank has as much talent as anybody on this team," Jaramillo said. "We've seen it. We know it's there. It's a matter of trusting himself and getting it out of him." The Rangers need Blalock back to form on a team that has an unusually high number of questions about the offense. That's always been a team strength, but the free-agent loss of Lee, DeRosa, Matthews and Barajas is going to hurt unless others can fill the void. The Rangers signed Sammy Sosa to a Minor League contract in the hope that he can be part of the fix. But there's little doubt that Blalock is No. 1 on the Rangers' list of solutions.
The Rangers know that Kenny Lofton and Frank Catalanotto will be at the top of their order and Young and Teixeira will likely bat third and fourth. After that, it becomes uncertain, starting with Sosa, but also Brad Wilkerson, who is also coming back from shoulder surgery, and Nelson Cruz, who is getting his first real shot at being the Rangers' regular right fielder.Blalock can help reduce the uncertainty in the lower half of the lineup. "All I expect is for Hank to do what Hank is capable of," manager Ron Washington said. "I just want him to stay focused and bring an attitude to the park every day. I want him to feel good about himself, and I'm going to do everything I can to get Hank feeling good. As long as we do that, Hank will be fine." There were some tangible signs in 2006 that Blalock can still be one of the premier hitters in the league. He batted .337 with runners in scoring position -- 16th best in the American League -- and his .413 average with runners in scoring position and two outs was the fourth highest. He hit .333 in the somewhat nebulous "close and late" situations. What all that says is that when Blalock is locked in, he is as good as anybody in clutch situations. The Rangers just need the total package that was there in 2003-04. "As a player, you look at every year as a big year no matter what kind of season you had before," Blalock said. "You don't think of it as a rebound year or a comeback year. I know I'm a talented player. Last year, I didn't put myself in position to maximize my talent. "That's what's so frustrating. But I want people to have confidence in me, and I want to show the people who have confidence in me that I can do the job."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.