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HARD DRIVES: Powell's job is thankless in Seattle

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HARD DRIVES: Powell's job is thankless in Seattle

by John E. Gibson (Jul 21, 2010)

Line drives, bloopers, misplays or worm-killers--as long as they are hits and teams win games, no one should care how they are generated.

But batting coaches have as thankless a duty as umpires, and tend to get saddled with CEO-level accountability when it comes to a team's offensive offense.

The Seattle Mariners, with hit-addicted Ichiro Suzuki leading the way, added former Japan pro baseball star Alonzo Powell as hitting coach on Mother's Day--May 9--to help them overcome their shortcomings at the plate.

In 1994, the same year Ichiro started his unprecedented string of seven Pacific League battling titles, Powell won the first of his three consecutive Central League batting crowns with the Chunichi Dragons, and remains the only foreign player to three-peat in that category.

Powell, who was in Nagoya from 1992-97 and with the Hanshin Tigers in '98, got the call-up from the M's Triple-A affiliate to play the role of vice president in charge of offensive efficiency for a team that looks like it needs a GPS to travel around the bases and back to home plate.

The run-scrounging M's are tied with the Houston Astros for last in the majors in batting average (.238), and have scored just 312 runs, only four more than the majors' lowest-scoring team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Seattle's on-base percentage is .306, second from the bottom.

Seems like Powell might have to work 24-7 to improve results.

"If they play great, the hitting coach is great or you have great players and the hitting coach still doesn't know what he's talking about," the 45-year-old Powell told Hard Drives from his home in Arizona during last week's All-Star break. "Trust me, being a hitting coach is a thankless job. But I enjoy doing what I'm doing because it's one of the hardest things to do. And I have a lot of fun trying to make it work."

The M's can't seem to make anything work where it counts: on the scoreboard. They have the fewest RBIs in the majors at 297.

Some might say the soft contact has a way of evening out with the number of liners that get snagged, but Powell dispelled that theory in a hurry.

"You hit a lot more balls hard and get outs than you hit bloopers and get hits--because if they evened out, I'd still be playing," quipped Powell, a career .313 hitter in 710 games here.

"That's why hitting is so messed up. You can do everything right five times--hit the ball on the screws--and be 0-for-5. But you can break three bats [with] two bloopers and hit a chopper off the plate and you can be 5-for-5."

Powell didn't cut his teeth in the majors, but he said the players know his history and hold him in high regard.

"I've been coaching almost nine years professionally, I can't see one player I didn't have respect for or who didn't have respect for me."

That includes Ichiro, who remembered Powell when the coach interviewed to be the M's minor league hitting coordinator four years ago.

"He knew who I was and I knew who he was. We both have mutual respect for each other--he understands what I went through in my career."

Powell said the M's superstar picks his brain occasionally.

"He asks me questions from time to time. I know him, he's one of the best hitters alive, and he doesn't have to ask me questions. But he does."

Still, most of the questions surrounding Seattle are about increasing run production. And media members take jabs at Seattle that do more damage than many of the baseballs the M's hit.

"It's frustrating. I've been an offensive guy all my life, and that's my job--to get these to score some runs," Powell said.

"We're getting guys on base, but for some reason, we can't find a way to get a big hit."

After Ichiro at .317, Powell has little to work with. The M's have no real big bopper, which means they have to bunch hits together to score and that requires consistency at the plate.

"I'm only as good as those guys," Powell admitted.

Powell says he gets to the ballpark each day at noon. Working all those hours are bound to leave him sleepless and thankless in Seattle.

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