Sometimes, it just takes one
No one will argue that leadership is a vital component for any team in any sport, but after a successful season or a championship run, you will never see a coach or manager crediting him/herself. Even for the best teams, particularly in a 162-game Major League Baseball season, the randomness of the game takes hold. A few lucky bounces can make the difference in key games, and no one person will affect the outcome all that much.
However, so often in the game we see the acquisition of a new coach or a new player, and it's like someone flicked on the light switch. Guys who weren't hitting are suddenly scalding the ball, and pitchers who couldn't throw strikes are suddenly getting everyone out. What's the big change?
Any major league player will tell you that baseball is 95 percent mental. If your mind isn't going the right way, you're not going to perform. That's why you often see managers and coaches getting replaced in the middle of a long slump. If it's the overall atmosphere that's causing the failure, then maybe a change in personnel will create a winning mentality.
So far, the changes are helping the Phillies and Orioles. Since Philadelphia fired hitting coach Milt Thompson and brought in Greg Gross, the team has gone 17-5, while Baltimore is 9-4 since the hiring of new manager Buck Showalter.
When Showalter entered the picture, the Orioles sported the worst record in baseball and had long abandoned the pipe dream of contending down the stretch. Their main problem, as has been the case for a decade, was a lack of starting pitching. Three starters in the rotation had double-digit losses, and Jeremy Guthrie was the only one with an ERA below 5. He also led the rotation in victories with four.
Since no-nonsense Buck took the reigns, Baltimore is not looking so lost. The team rattled off nine wins in 11 games, seven of which were on the road. Over that stretch, the starters went 6-1 with an ERA under 3. If the Orioles stay on their present course, they'll achieve their first month with a winning record since June 2008.
Showalter has a reputation for bringing a sense of order to teams with no direction, like the New York Yankees teams of the early 1990s and the brand new Arizona Diamondbacks a few years later. He's not telling the Orioles how to hit or pitch, but as Guthrie explained, he's helped change their mentality.
"It's not a coincidence that we've turned it around since Buck showed up," he said. "He hasn't done anything necessarily different to make us win games, but we know what he expects. No magic formula, but maybe a kind of a good shift for us in gears."
The Philadelphia Phillies offense was in dire need of a shift in gears early in the second half. The hitters had been stuck in neutral for the better part of the season, and the team went 2-6 on its road trip after the All-Star Break, falling six games behind the Atlanta Braves in the division.
With injuries suffered to nearly every position player at different points in the year, the team was in uncharted territory, and management felt someone needed to take the blame. Thompson had guided a healthy offense through two trips to the World Series, but he was apparently ill-equipped to help the hitters adjust to so many injuries.
Since Gross took over hitting instruction, the offense has kicked it into high gear, averaging 5.2 runs per game, more than a run better than it managed under Thompson since mid-May. What's more impressive is that the team continued to hit after losing Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino.
While the Phillies are the ones hitting and not Gross, he probably helped bring them a fresh perspective. During last night's game against the Mets, Gross said he tried to focus on the differences hitters displayed when they were hot or in a slump; whether it's a difference in stance at the plate or their swing, he reminded them of those changes whenever they weren't hitting well. Gross basically described the job of every hitting coach, but the Phillies must like what he has to say.
Now if Gross could unlock the mystery of how to hit when Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels are pitching, then we'd really be in business.
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