Say what you will about superstitions, but baseball is rife with them. And to those who hold the most strident beliefs in the voodoo of the national pastime, there is one cardinal rule. Do not step on the foul line when entering the field of play.
Matt Szczur, however, sees it a little differently.
"Oh, I step all over it any chance I get," he said. "I was slumping really badly one or two years ago, and I thought, 'You know what? It can't hurt me any worse than it's going right now.' Ever since then, I've just made a habit of doing that when I go out there."
Despite decades of tradition, the trick seems to be working wonders for him lately.
The Cubs' No. 10 prospect went 3-for-5 Tuesday night out of the top spot in Double-A Tennessee's lineup in the Smokies' 3-2 win over Jackson in 10 innings. It was his sixth consecutive multi-hit game and second three-hit performance in the past three days. In that six-game span, he is 14-for-29 (.483) with two doubles, six RBIs and four stolen bases.
"I'm just feeling more and more comfortable at the plate," he said. "I've just been keeping my approach pretty much the same, and I've been able to put some good swings on the ball. … I'm just trying to let the ball travel and not look for any pitch in particular. Just keep two hands on the bat and swing when I get my pitch to hit."
Before Szczur began his run of multi-hit performances, his batting average sat at a season-low .255 one week ago. It stands at .302 -- eighth-highest in the Southern League -- through 35 games after Tuesday, his first time over the .300 mark since April 20.
The 23-year-old outfielder has matched his games played from last season at Tennessee, but his production has far exceeded that of his first go-round. Szczur batted just .210 through 35 games in the Southern League, where he ended the season. So far, his OPS is more than 100 points higher (.762-.641). He has tripled his RBI total (18-6) and more than tripled his stolen-base total (13-4) in the same span.
"You know what to expect after going through this once," said the former Villanova football star. "It was huge for me to get that experience and playing in the Arizona Fall League helped too. You learn more about how to go up there with a plan and how to set a routine before the game, how I should go about batting practice, stuff like that. That's the kind of stuff I took away from here the first time."
Szczur and the Smokies faced Jackson starter and MLB.com's No. 5 overall prospect Taijuan Walker on Tuesday. The center fielder flied out against the right-hander in the first inning and stroked a two-out single in the fifth. Walker finished with two runs (one earned) on four hits and one walk and struck out six over seven innings, but did not factor in the decision.
"He's got a real hard fastball," Szczur said. "You just have to sit fastball and tip your hat if he throws his curveball, changeup or cutter. All you can do is make sure you're swinging at a good pitch to hit and just battle with him. He's definitely a great pitcher."
The Smokies (19-18) scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th when Arismendy Alcantara plated Tim Torres with a two-out bunt single. The victory was the team's fourth straight and came one night after scoring four in the ninth to take a 6-4 decision over the Generals.
"You can feel that it's not just one player, but everybody coming together as a team to help us win," said Szczur, who drove in the go-ahead run with a double Monday. "These guys don't give up ever. You saw that yesterday and tonight. No matter what the score is, we feel like we're able to get a win. It's a lot of fun to play here."