Slumping Hardy: 'The game's going 100 mph for me'

If Step 1 of breaking a slump is admitting you have a problem, then J.J. Hardy has better days ahead in May.

Hardy was out of the Brewers’ lineup Friday night and probably won’t play Saturday, either. He skipped batting practice, too, in an effort to take a mental break from the game that was not kind to him in April. Hardy finished April with no hits in his final 11 at-bats and one hit in his final 20 at-bats.

“I’m trying. Nothing’s happening,” Hardy said. “I feel like the game’s going 100 mph for me right now. I don’t think [a break] will hurt.”

Even when he has hit the baseball hard, someone has been on the other end of it. That happened in the second inning Thursday night, when D-backs shortstop Josh Wilson robbed Hardy of a hit with a highlight-worthy defensive play.

“If that ball gets through and I’m able to relax a little bit, it’s my first at-bat and who knows what happens?” Hardy said. “I’m just trying to battle through it. The more and more I’m not getting a hit, the more and more I feel like I’m pressing. The game just starts to go faster and faster. I’m having trouble slowing it down, I guess. I don’t know.”

Craig Counsell started in Hardy’s place at shortstop on Friday against Arizona right-hander Jon Garland, whom Hardy had never faced. He hasn’t faced Arizona’s Saturday starter, Dan Haren, either. Whether Hardy returns on Sunday against Yusmeiro Petit remains to be seen. Manager Ken Macha said only that Hardy would get “a couple of days” off.

Hardy has started slow before, but not like this. He batted .244 last April with one home run and eight RBIs and stayed cool in May, hitting .264 with one more home run and seven RBIs. By the end of the season and into the playoffs he was Milwaukee’s hottest hitter, finishing the regular season with a .283 average, 24 homers and 74 RBIs.

But this year, he seemed poised for a quick start after hitting a team-best .403 in Spring Training. Instead, he was installed as a run-producer in the five-hole and batted .156 in April including .083 with runners in scoring position (2-for-24). Hardy did hit three home runs and contributed seven RBIs.

“That’s the game,” he said. “You can go good, and then it turns around and you’ve totally forgot how to play the game. … In Spring Training, I didn’t think about one damn thing, and everything just kind of fell into place. I was seeing the ball great. Then the season starts, and I struggled a little bit the first couple of games, and it’s like, ‘Now what?'”

He admitted he’s having trouble making the necessary adjustments. Even the most casual fan can see that Hardy’s stance is way more open than it was in the past.

“I just heard that today,” Hardy said. “Mike Rivera told me, ‘Your stance is way open.’ I’m not trying to do that.” 

His hands are higher, too, but that began late last year and it felt comfortable for Hardy in the National League Division Series, when he batted .429. He’s trying to get them back down now, but when he goes back to look at his at-bats on video, they’re still way up.

He’s noticed that he’s not the only former All-Star off to a slow start. Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins hit .207 in April, and needed a hot finish to the month to get over the Mendoza Line. The Cubs’ Derrek Lee hit .189 with only one home run. Houston’s Lance Berkman batted .162.

Only one player with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title finished with a lower April average than Hardy. Cincinnati’s Edwin Encarnacion hit .127 before chipping a bone in his wrist. Besides his April 13 grand slam against the Brewers, Encarnacion had only two RBIs.

“It was the first month, and there are five more,” Hardy said he’s telling himself. “It has to turn around sometime. I’m waiting for it to start turning around so I don’t have to grind like this any more.”

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