Eckstein focused on fast start

Eckstein focused on fast start

SAN DIEGO -- Getting two hits in Saturday's exhibition game against the Angels lifted David Eckstein's batting average this spring to .414, though such a hot start in spring in the past hasn't always translated to a big April.

"I have already talked to [Padres first-year hitting coach] Jim [Lefebvre] about this, how April is one of my lowest months, batting average-wise," Eckstein said. "How I do during Spring Training does not really make a difference to me."

But Eckstein has a reason to think he can roll his hot spring into April, which would suit the Padres just fine, especially because the opening month of 2008 saw them go 10-17 and plummet to the bottom of the National League West.

So how does Eckstein, a free-agent addition in the offseason, plan to keep getting hits in bunches once the regular season begins on Monday, when the Padres face the Dodgers at 4:05 p.m. PT?

Let's just say Eckstein has given new meaning to the saying "see-the-ball, hit-the-ball."

Eckstein has worked closely with Lefebvre, specifically on drills that focused on seeing and identifying breaking balls because those are pitches that, for Eckstein at least, take longer for him to get dialed into once the regular season begins.

"It's about finding a way to make sure the swing goes into April," Eckstein said. "We have got a pretty good routine going. The biggest thing he has stressed is looking at offspeed pitches ... split-finger [fastballs] from righties and lefties. I think that's been a key."

Eckstein said that, at least early in Spring Training, there is no shortage of pitchers who tend to throw mostly fastballs as they work into their secondary pitches. So breaking balls can sometimes be few and far between.

That's not an issue with Lefebvre, who has designed specific drills that feature the offspeed pitches, breaking balls and just about everything else that doesn't qualify as your garden-variety fastball.

"It's about getting your eyes adjusted to recognizing those type of pitches and then being able to react to it," Eckstein said. "That's something we've done a lot in camp. That way once the season starts, you're used to seeing those pitches."

Lefebvre has used this drill with other players with successful results, like former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, a Hall of Famer, when Lefebvre was the manager in Chicago in 1992-93. Sandberg, like Eckstein, was a slow starter.

Eckstein is counting on a big season as the No. 2 hitter in the order. But first, he must get past his poor opening-month performances. A career .284 hitter, Eckstein hit just .248 in April of last season with Toronto and .226 in 2007 in April with St. Louis.

Eckstein's contributions hitting second in the order between left-handers Jody Gerut and Brian Giles could go a long way in improving an offense that scored the fewest runs in the Major Leagues in 2008.

Last season, the combined batting average for No. 2 hitters in the Padres' lineup was .266 with a .318 on-base percentage.

The role of the No. 2 hitter is diverse. It's almost like another leadoff hitter, though this hitter has to be able to handle the bat, drop down a bunt and hit behind the baserunner. Also, a good number No. 2 hitter doesn't strike out much and Eckstein hasn't struck out more than 50 times in a season since his rookie year with the Angels in 2001.

"He helps us do a lot of things," Padres manager Bud Black said of Eckstein, who could hit leadoff against some left-handed pitchers this season as well. "He's very capable of getting a bunt down, hit-and-run, he sees pitches and has an ability to get on base. You like having guys on base for the three, four, five hitters."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.