Two Big Swings For Stewart _ At Last

May 13, 2009 | 12:18 am  

The home runs were a bonus for Ian Stewart, particularly a grand slam. Things were going so bad, he would have settled for far less and gone back to the dugout satisfied.

On his first at-bat Tuesday, Stewart took a third strike, continuing a disturbing trend. That made it five at-bats with five straight strikeouts, all called.

“Whether they were home runs or just a single or even if I lined out,” Stewart said, “just knowing that I put a good swing on it, hit the ball hard, put it on the barrel would’ve been a good feeling enough for me.”

Stewart homered with one out in the fourth off Astros starter Felipe Paulino. With two out in the fifth and the Rockies ahead 5-0, Stewart hit a grand slam off left-hander Tim Byrdak to make it 9-0 in what became a 12-1 rout.

Stewart batted a final time in the seventh and again struck out looking, this time against veteran Russ Ortiz. Stewart’s thought process worked against him.

“Ortiz started me off with two changeups, so he pitched me backwards there, so to speak,” Stewart said. “Then he threw me a slider in the dirt. Then he threw me a fastball where I didn’t pick it up good, but I still swung and I was able to foul it off.

“Then I was looking back out over the plate again, thinking he might come with the changeup, and he just kind of froze me with a little sinker there. But it’s definitely a ball I should get to and should swing at.”

Stewart tied his career-high with five RBI. His average, which had slipped to .194, rose to .211. But the two strikeouts made it 24 in 71 at-bats for Stewart, and 14 of those 24 _ including his past eight _ have been called strikeouts.

“The way he played through spring training, the first two weeks of the season, it’s almost like somebody pulled the plug on him,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “That’s what him and I talked about. I said, ‘You got to bring something, whether it’s on the bases, defensively but swing the bat. Two strikes _ open the field up. Swing the bat.’ ”

If it sounded like a plea on his Hurdle’s part, a sense of urgency he was trying to convey to Stewart _ well, there was. Hurdle and hitting coach Don Baylor have spoken in recent days to Stewart. They have spoken individually to him. They have spoken to him together. Indeed, before Tuesday’s game, Stewart said he spoke with Hurdle, Baylor and even bench coach Jim Tracy about his situation.

His most unusual situation.

“You’re not even halfway through the season and you got to convince him to swing,” Baylor said. “And young guys, it’s (typically) just the opposite. You got to tell them, ‘Hey, get a good pitch and not swing at everything.’ With him, it’s not swinging at balls in the dirt; it’s taking strikes.”

Stewart struck out 94 times in 266 at-bats last year. He went after a lot of what he called “chase pitches.” But at least he went after them.

“I just got to be more aggressive with two strikes and say, ‘The heck with it.’ Stewart said. “If he throws a changeup here or a slider and I’m out in front and I miss, go to the next at-bat. But it can’t be striking out looking at fastballs.”

His passivity on those pitches in particular has been alarming this season. It has also brought to mind a bit of wisdom once dispensed by Dave Garcia, an 88-year-old baseball sage who was a part-time coach for the Rockies under manager Buddy Bell and held that same position when Bell managed the Kansas City Royals. Garcia told Bell he wanted to address the Royals in spring training, and Hall of Famer and Kansas City icon George Brett happened to be standing next to Garcia.

“I said, ‘I’m not the hitting coach here, but I want to tell you guys something.’ ” Garcia said. “ ‘Don’t let a fastball strike hit the catcher’s glove.’ And George Brett said, ‘You got that right, Dave. I got over 3,100 hits and 2,900 were off of fastballs.’ ”

Stewart turned 24 last month. He has played in 147 games in the big leagues with 380 at-bats and 93 hits. He has game-changing power but is obviously still learning his trade. He has hit not just a skid but an inexplicable bat-on-the-shoulder skid.

“I go back to the dugout and I’m like, ‘Why can’t I just pull the trigger.’ ” Stewart said. “They’re pitches I should hit. Maybe I get jammed or hit it off the end (of the bat), but it’s definitely balls that should be put in play.”

He did that and then some, obviously, with his home runs. The grand slam improved the left-handed hitting Stewart to 5-for-13 against left-handed pitchers (he’s 10-for-58 against right-handers) and came after Stewart correctly analyzed the situation as he awaited a 1-0 fastball from Byrdak.

“With the bases loaded two out, he threw me a slider first pitch,” Stewart said. “I figured he’s probably going to come back with the heater, probably away. He doesn’t want to make a mistake in, leave it out over the plate. I also thought _ probably not another slider because he doesn’t want to bounce it.

“The game’s still relatively close there. It was only 5-0. I was looking for a fastball there, and it was up, and I was just able to put a good swing on it.”

You could almost hear the hallelujah chorus in the background, led by Hurdle.

“We don’t need to talk anymore,” Hurdle said. “You need to go do it. He knows it.
Sometimes players get jammed up up here. I don’t know exactly what he’s looking for at times, but if you gear up to hit the ball, you got a chance.

“And I just felt that sometimes he was just trying to figure too much out and the ball’s in flight. The game’s too quick up here for that to happen and be successful.”

Stewart’s grand slam was a line drive over the center field fence. He said he hoped the ball would go over head of center fielder Michael Bourn, and then, lo and behold, Stewart “saw it disappear.” Bullpen coach Jim Wright retrieved the ball for Stewart.

As happy as he was about the home runs, two more called third strikes gnawed at Stewart.
“They were pitches that I definitely could’ve hit,” he said. ““If I can just get to where I’m just staying aggressive and swinging and not getting so tentative with two strikes, where I’m nitpicking or whatever, I’ll be just fine. I got to trust myself more with two strikes to know that I’m a good hitter.”

Stewart said a year ago when he broke in at second base, playing multiple positions might have contributed to a malaise at the plate when he was concentrating more on playing second at times than on his hitting. This year, Stewart said, that’s not an issue.

Stewart’s big game helped the Rockies improve to 13-18 and move into third place, 7 ½ games behind the Dodgers. Baylor said hopefully this will be the start of something good for Stewart. Hurdle realistically said, “Time will tell.” But maybe not too much time.

“We saw more swings tonight in one game than we had seen in a lot of at-bats,” Hurdle said. “That’s what we’ve talked about. A swinging bat’s a dangerous at-bat. You’re going to go through periods as a player where you’re surviving and you’re contributing and you’re winning. We don’t have much time for a lot of surviving right now.”