Forgive Bryce Brentz
if he's not celebrating his current 23-game hitting streak. After all, the Greenville outfielder still remembers his professional debut in 2010 in the New York-Penn League, a time when he was simply hoping to find a hole somehow, some way on any given night.
"I think the big thing with me last year was there was too much effort," said Brentz, who posted a .198 average in 262 at-bats with Lowell. "I was trying to do too much at the plate, trying to make up for at-bats. With the struggles I started pressing instead of letting my ability take over and relaxing at the plate."
Brentz had rarely struggled at any time on the diamond, dating to his days on the youth league fields of Knoxville, Tenn., even though he never focused solely on baseball until his senior year. A standout football player and wrestler, he showed the greatest ability in the spring and summer, thanks in part to his two-way talent as a starting pitcher and hard-hitting outfielder. After being recruited by several mid-major programs, he wound up attending Middle Tennessee State, where he emerged as the Blue Raiders' Friday night starter and a catalyst in the middle of the batting order.
As a sophomore, Brentz earned consensus All-America honors after leading the NCAA in batting average (.465), home runs (28), hits (107), runs (79), total bases (214) and slugging percentage (.930). He also was tabbed the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year and was selected to play for the USA National Team in the summer, batting .366 with 26 hits, including eight for extra bases.
"I had great hitting coaches at MTSU, beginning with head coach Steve Peterson and his assistant, Jim McGuire, and our graduate assistants," Brentz said. "College was the first time I received real hitting lessons. They taught me about backspin and staying inside of the ball. I had never heard that stuff. Before that, my philosophy was see it and hit it. So they really helped me develop as a hitter."
Although an injury caused Brentz to miss 12 starts as a junior, he still managed to hit .348 with 15 home runs and 49 RBIs in 2010. Shortly after the conclusion of the collegiate season, Brentz became a supplemental first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox, the 36th overall selection in the first-year player Draft. He signed shortly thereafter and joined Lowell in time for Opening Day of the New York-Penn League campaign.
By coming to terms quickly with the Red Sox, Brentz did not have time to get rusty. Nevertheless, he managed only one hit in his first 13 at-bats and owned a .100 average through his first nine games. While the adjustments to the wood bat and professional pitching contributed to his difficulties, complicating matters was his wearing contact lens for the first time. He began by wearing soft lenses that needed to be replaced once a month, but started using them sporadically due to the discomfort. The outfielder did not wear any contact lenses during a strong showing in instructional league before trying the daily disposable lens over the winter. The new styles have eliminated the irritation, which has Brentz seeing the ball better than ever.
As a result, Brentz has looked this season much more like the player he was in college than the hitter that struggled at Lowell. Through games of May 11, the right-handed batter led the South Atlantic League with 51 hits, 33 runs scored and 91 total bases. He also was tied for first with 21 extra-base hits and 26 RBIs, tied for second with a .381 batting average and ranked fourth with a .679 slugging percentage.
"Right now, I'm just trying to go from at-bat to at-bat and learn from it," Brentz said. "Luis Lopez, our hitting coach, keeps me calm and keeps reminding me to use the middle of the field. I think the big thing is I'm more relaxed and I have a better idea of what I want to accomplish when I go to the plate."
Brentz's 22-game hitting streak is easily the longest in the Minors this season, rivaled only by the 18-game string put together by Salt Lake City's Gil Velazquez that ended May 3. Brentz's performance also far outweighs his best streak of six he had midway through the 2010 season, when there were nights the outfielder felt like he could not buy a hit.
"In many ways it feels like I'm playing the same game; I'm just having a little better luck," he said. "I've always been somewhat of a free swinger, but I'm learning to be more selectively aggressive. Luis told me just the other day that more than 30 percent of my hits this season have come with two strikes. That's a sign that I've calmed down, that I'm being more patient and letting my ability take over."
Kline suspended: Augusta pitching coach Steve Kline was suspended for a minimum of two games by South Atlantic League president Eric Krupa after being ejected by home plate umpire Carlos Torres on May 10. Kline was returning to the dugout after making a visit to the mound when he began arguing balls and strikes with Torres. During the heated exchange, Kline allegedly head-butted Torres, who required medical attention from a trainer before resuming his duties.
Balancing act: Through May 10, The Asheville Tourists led the circuit with a team batting average of .299, 11 points better than second-ranked Lexington. The team's pitching staff, conversely, was last in the league with a staff ERA of 6.02, 0.90 worse than the 13th-ranked club -- also the Legends. The Jekyll-and-Hyde personalities had the Tourists and Legends owning 16-16 records.
Harper hot: Hagerstown OF Bryce Harper had a 14-game hitting streak through Tuesday, a stretch that included 10 multi-hit outings. Harper was 24-for-54 (.444) in the 14 contests with eight runs scored, eight doubles, four homers and 11 RBIs. His hot streak vaulted him into second place in the Sally batting race with a .377 mark.
Suns warming up: Hagerstown opened May by winning seven of its first nine games. The Suns were hitting .295 for the month through Tuesday while pitchers Matthew Grace, Bobby Hansen and Paul Applebee are all 2-0 on the month. Grace, who went 1-3 in April, followed a two-hitter over six shutout innings against Rome on May 1 with another strong performance vs. Lexington on May 6, when he limited the Legends to two runs -- one earned -- on six hits over 6 1/3 innings to even his record at 3-3.