CINCiNNATI — Is Billy Hamilton back to those illustrious days of early last season when he determined the outcome of games with his unworldly speed?
It appeared that way over the weekend in a three-game series against the Minnesota Twins when he stole bases on demand and turned opposing pitchers into nervous jitterbugs.
It was indeed a small sampling, but it is a start. Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price likes what he sees, but is still batting Hamilton ninth until consistency surfaces.
HE IS STILL HITTING only .226 with an on base average of .276, far below the numbers a successful leadoff hitter needs.
But over the weekend he played with the old verve and confidence he showed during the first half of last season.
And despite the low average figures he is on his way to stealing more than 80 bases.
“Every win right now for us is big and I know if I can get base way more than I have I can help the team,” said Hamilton. “I know when I get on base everybody gets excited and I make things happen. I just have to get better at getting on base.”
AND THERE HAS been a major improvement in Hamilton’s bunting. Early this season he tried to run-and-bunt instead of bunt-and-run, tried to run toward first base before the bunt was down. Recently he has realized that if he stands in and makes certain he gets the bunt down he can still beat it out. He has been successful in beating out seven of his last 11 bunt attempts.
“I’m taking my time and getting the bunt down instead of running so fast. I’ve learned that the placement of the bunt is way better than my speed,” he said. “If I put it in an area where they can’t get it, it is way better than running out of there on a bad bunt. Now I am making them make a play.”
THROUGH ALL THE learning process of hitting, Hamilton’s defense has been exemplary. He covers more ground than a glacier and leads the world in diving catches.
He performed another Wednesday in a 2-1 victory. With two outs and nobody on in the ninth, Minnesota’s Torii Hunter lined one into the right center gap. It appeared it would be a double, putting the tying run on second base. But Hamilton sprinted toward the ball and launched his body to spear it as he crash landed, ending the game.
“I was especially happy because of the guy who hit it,” said Hamilton. “He is always one of the guys I’ve looked up to. I always tell those guys to hit me the ball.”
Throughout his career Hunter has been regarded as one of the game’s best defensive center fielders and Hamilton said, “It was amazing. He knows how I feel about him and when I made that catch I saw him smile and that made me feel pretty good.”
THERE IS NO DOUBT that when Hamilton gets on base the other team develops nervous tremors, especially the opposing pitcher.
“I don’t enjoy getting into a pitcher’s head as much as a hitter enjoys it,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “My job is to get on base and when I do I can do more. When I get on, then it is the job of the hitter behind me.”
Hamilton makes the job easier, though. More than not, he steals second and often times steals third, making a hitter’s job much easier to bring him home.
Hamilton already is Mr. Excitement. He just needs to Mr. Consistent.