TAMPA — Some were mental. Some were physical.
All were necessary.
So adjustments were made.
For guys such as Craig Hansen and Brian Bixler, this spring has been built around putting all that preparation to fruition.
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Hansen wants to prove to the Pittsburgh Pirates he can be an effective option out of the bullpen. Bixler wants to show the Pirates last year’s major-league sampling isn’t indicative of the kind of player he can be.
Both want to prove they are better than what they were in 2008. Thus far, both are headed in the right direction.
Acquired from the Boston Red Sox in a three-way deal last July, Hansen wasn’t scored upon in his first seven appearances this spring before surrendering five runs in a 1/3 of an inning against the New York Yankees on Saturday.
Bixler entered Tuesday night’s game against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field batting .367 with three triples in 15 games.
Neither look like they did last summer.
Hansen, for one, wasn’t looking to put just ’08 out of his head.
“The last three years, basically,” he said, “is what I had to lose.”
He was Boston’s first pick of the 2005 draft, but struggled in four separate stints in the majors and limped into this spring with a 6.39 ERA in 90 games. Hansen’s struggles weren’t limited to New England — he went 1-4 in 16 games with Pittsburgh last year, walking 20 and striking out seven in 15 2/3 innings.
The Long Island native decided to go back to basics in the offseason, heading back home to work with Scott Brown, pitching coach at St. John’s University. Under Brown’s tutelage, Hansen was named the Big East Pitcher of the Year in 2005.
“Everything else was thrown out the window, and we started from scratch, and we started to get the muscle memory back,” Hansen said. “My career wasn’t going the way I wanted it to.”
Hansen blamed himself for being “a super-absorbent sponge.” He took every piece of advice from every coach he worked with and tried to apply it every time he went out on the mound. Consequently, Brown said Hansen was a different pitcher every time he threw.
“It was too much information here and there, too many voices wanting to change this, wanting change that,” he said. “It was like, ‘Let me throw, and we’ll go from there. And if I fail, I fail.’”
Brown helped Hansen start from scratch. The two worked every day, helping Hansen try to regain the form that made him a first-round draft pick.
The difference is palpable.
“Craig was very adamant at the end of the season that he wanted to go back to the delivery mechanics he had in college,” said general manager Neal Huntington. “They re-worked his delivery, they dropped his arm slot and at this point, it’s allowed him to be in the zone a lot more.
“The power stuff that we used to see as a major-leaguer — we haven’t seen that yet. But it starts with being in the strike zone.”
Bixler, the Pirates’ second-round pick in ’04, struggled in three different stints with the Pirates, hitting .157 in 50 games.
So Bixler has logged time with hitting instructor Don Long and new infield coach Perry Hill, which has paid dividends in the field — and most importantly, between Bixler’s ears.
“Just seeing some results from it, it seems to be going well,” he said. “Any time something like that happens, your confidence grows. So I’m feeling good right now. I like the progress.”
Offensively, Bixler worked on minimizing the movement in his swing. Defensively, he began shortening his throws, improving his accuracy and preventing the ball from tailing away from him.
All those alterations have made Bixler a different player.
“He’s a lot more relaxed,” manager John Russell said. “Trusting his fundamentals just adds confidence, and you really see a different guy.”
Such is the beauty of spring — it’s full of renewal and second chances. And it’s the perfect time to let go of the past.
“I’m not going to dwell on it,” Bixler said. “It was a learning experience. ... Just learn from it, and become a better player.”