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THE HOT CORNER: 2nd time the charm for Brazell

by Jim Allen (Jul 23, 2009)

It seemed like a match made for frustration. Given the Hanshin Tigers' repeated failings with foreign position players, this summer's signing of Craig Brazell seemed like just the next chapter in a long, painful story.

Sure, he'd hit 27 homers for the Saitama Seibu Lions, but with a .234 average and a .294 on-base percentage, Brazell's power came at a cost.

But that was last year.

Although still a big swinger, Brazell has brought a better attitude and approach to his new team.

"My first time over [in 2008] was a big adjustment for me," he told The Hot Corner on Friday at Tokyo Dome. "The big thing [this season] is not thinking too much, going back to basics: See the ball, hit the ball.

"The places and situations I've been put into this year have kind of given me a new look on baseball. It's still a kid's game."

Unsigned by the Lions over the winter and cut by the Baltimore Orioles this spring, Brazell found himself with the independent Northern League' s St. Paul Saints.

"Those guys at St. Paul, they were happy as hell to go to the ballpark each day," Brazell said. "And me, I'm sitting here going [in a monotone], 'Damn. I'm here. OK. Let's go play.'

"But I knew that I had to have a good attitude because a lot of these guys hadn't been around guys that had major league time or had played all over the world, and they had to see that. That kind of picked me up a little bit."

A few weeks with the Saints, Brazell said, helped him loosen up a bit.

"...Sometimes I'm a little stand-offish," he said. "I get into modes where I'm focused on one thing and one thing only. I've tried to move that mode out. And this year, that's helped me a lot, just trying to having an open mind for everything."

The combination of having a full season of Japanese ball under his belt--knowing more of the "dos and don'ts"--and a refresher course at the lowest level, prepared Brazell well for a second chance here.

And considering Hanshin's record with introducing foreign hitters to Japan, someone deserves a raise for recommending a player with experience.

Between 1995, when Scott Coolbaugh had a productive debut year, and 2008, Hanshin has introduced 22 foreign position players to the Japanese game. In their first seasons, they averaged 190 at-bats, six homers and a .239 average.

Not all were busts, of course. Mark Johnson (1999) and Tony Tarrasco (2000) each had a better debut season than Brazell did with the Lions, but neither came back for a second season.

This spring's Hanshin hope, outfielder Kevin Mench, played 15 games before the Tigers began work on Plan B.

The Tigers made note of Brazell's poor on-base percentage with Seibu, but also knew he was hitting the cover off the ball with the Saints.

"He wasn't very good last year," Tigers batting coach Yutaka Wada said. "It was pull the ball, pull the ball, pull the ball. This year has been different.

"We saw he was really hitting for a high average...and you see that he' s hitting the ball the other way up the middle, making better contact."

Going the other way is an important skill, especially if you're a left-handed, flyball hitter at Koshien Stadium, where the fences are distant and the wind from Osaka Bay howls in over the right-field stands.

"He has that home run power to left center and that's something we need in our park," Wada said.

The extra hits he's picked up to left and center have helped Brazell make up for his conspicuous lack of walks--this year he walked once in his first 132 trips to the plate. If he keeps that up, he'll be the first player in the last 20 years to bat 300 times with fewer than seven walks.

Brazell, who said hitting the ball to left is closer to his natural style, thanked Wada for helping him find his comfort zone at the plate.

"I like Wada, because he just lets me hit. If I strike out, I strike out," Brazell said.

"There were times last year, even when I was going well, that I felt like I was standing in a hole trying to dig my way out. So this has definitely been a change this year."


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