Powers: Twins’ Tom Brunansky wants hits, not excuses
By Tom Powers
St. Paul Pioneer Press
FORT MYERS, Fla. — It’s 7:45 a.m. and Tom Brunansky is on one knee watching Doug Bernier hit baseballs off a tee. Thwack! Thwack! Brunansky takes a sip of coffee and tees up another ball. Thwack! He seems unaffected by these mini-booms going off just a few feet away at eye level.
The sun isn’t very high, and most of its early rays are hidden behind morning fog. This adds to the dreariness of the batting cages situated under the Hammond Stadium stands.
These aren’t really batting cages as such, more like four batting lanes — like in a bowling alley. The whole area is enclosed by chain-link, and the individual strips are separated by mesh. It’s all rather dark and crowded, filled with pitching machines, ball bags and scuffed-up baseballs. It has the feel of being underground. Except that the very back end is exposed to an area frequented by the public.
The fans lean in, cup their hands to the fence and peer inside as if they are staring at some sort of zoo exhibit.
“There’s no daylight,” Brunansky noted. “And that’s what everybody says when they come by here. They always yell, ‘Hey, you guys are in a cage!’ But that’s our job. We get buried in the cages.’ ”
It’s the life of a hitting coach in spring training. This type of existence is not good for one’s tan. In fact, spend enough time in the cages and evolution accelerates to the point that hitting coaches have been known to grow tails and scamper on all fours.
Brunansky usually is in the cages by 7:30, a full hour and a half before the official start of workouts. Starting his second year as Twins hitting coach, Brunansky is preaching change. The Twins did not do well at all at the plate last season.
“There needs to be a lot more prep work and a lot more accountability,” he said.
And a lot more kicks in the behind?
“Kind of,” he said. “Just watching and seeing how hitters prepared and seeing how their preparation work carried over to the games, some of that I wasn’t real happy with. We talked about it. The players know. Now we go from here.”
The Twins were awful in the hitting department last season, though that pretty much got lost in the shuffle because everyone was fixated on the abysmal starting pitching. Of the 15 teams in the American League, the Twins finished 13th in runs scored, 13th in men left on base, 12th in batting average, 12th in hits, 11th in homers and 11th in on-base percentage. Collectively, Twins hitters struck out nine times a game on average. Only the Houston Astros, the worst team in baseball, whiffed more.
While the Twins have addressed their starting pitching through free agency, they haven’t done much with their lineup. So Brunansky is going to have to figure a way to squeeze more production out of these fellows. And when he gets done with that, he will be asked to walk across the Mississippi River while juggling flaming torches.
“At the big-league level, we can’t give at-bats away,” Brunansky said. “Meaning, whether it was a bad approach or whether we got two strikes and just gave up on an at-bat, sometimes we were not competing to put the ball in play.”
He wants the hitters, especially the young ones, to be prepared to the point where they can step into the batter’s box during games and just react. Most of the veterans have an idea of what they need to do, but many of the younger guys do not. So he wants them to put in the work and then go up there and hit — no excuses.
Manager Ron Gardenhire explains it a bit more bluntly.
“They need to be aggressive and swing the &^$#% bat,” Gardenhire said. “Bruno is trying to get that through their heads. When you leave the dugout, you’re a hitter. Just go hit. Quit running to the video machine and saying that ball was two inches outside.
“Those are all the things I want to see done. It was a learning experience for (Brunansky) his first year. It didn’t go awful well for us. So, you know what, I’m sure he’s going to make some adjustments. When you leave the dugout, it’s you vs. the pitcher. Go be a hitter. That’s kind of where we’re at.”
Brunansky said he thought about it all winter. Yes, some of the young hitters looked clueless at times, even to the point of peering into the dugout for advice in the middle of an at-bat. He doesn’t want to see that again and has let them know about it.
And with that, he ducked back into the dank cages, ready to help them all to try to stand on their own two feet.
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