Southern notes: Lee learns his limits

Biscuits shortstop becoming a pest at the plate, on the bases

By Guy Curtright / Special to | July 23, 2012 10:51 AM ET

Hak-Ju Lee is No. 36 among's Top 100 Prospects and the Tampa Bay Rays' No. 1 prospect primarily because of his highlight-reel defensive plays.

"He has a ton of range," Montgomery manager Billy Gardner Jr. said of his shortstop. "He can get to about anything between second and third base."

But Lee has been drawing just as much attention for his work at the plate as in the field recently after a slow start for the Biscuits this season.

The 21-year-old native of Korea set a Montgomery record with a 21-game hitting streak that ended July 12, and he was just two short of Evan Longoria's mark of reaching base safely in 37 consecutive games through Sunday.

Lee, acquired from the Chicago Cubs in the Matt Garza deal before the 2011 season, is hitting .321 with 16 walks, 25 runs scored and 15 RBIs during his 35-game on-base streak.

Not bad for someone who hit .167 in his first 18 games this season and .190 after being promoted to Double-A for the last 24 games a year ago.

"I've realized I'm a slap hitter and not a gap hitter," said Lee, who has spent extra time working with hitting coach Ozzie Timmons.

Gardner blamed last season's late struggles to the fatigue of a long season after Lee had batted .318 in 97 games for Charlotte of the Class A Advanced Florida State League. But it was obvious that some adjustments were needed after the slow start this year.

"He's not going out of the strike zone like he was, and he's staying on top of the ball," Gardner said. "If he hits the top half of the ball, not the bottom, he can use his speed."

Speed is something Lee has in abundance, and he is taking better advantage of it.

"He's a very exciting player," Gardner said.

Lee is second in the Southern League with a career-high 34 stolen bases and has been caught just once in 13 attempts during the second-half.

"My legs have felt good this year. I feel faster," Lee said. "This year, instead of worrying about who the catcher is, I just focus on getting a good jump each time."

"You need an aggressive mind-set to steal bases, and he's been aggressive," Gardner said. "An aggressive base stealer goes in the first two pitches."

Of course, Lee is stealing more bases because he is getting on more. His average was still a modest .271 after 97 games, but he had a .338 on-base percentage thanks to 40 walks.

"I pay a lot of attention to what the pitcher throws," Lee said.

The left-handed hitter is not completely devoid of extra-base power. He has 12 doubles, eight triples and two homers among his 112 hits.

"He's stronger and can turn on a ball when he needs to," Gardner said.

The only negative for Lee is his error total. He has 21 -- three more than all of last season.

"He gets to more balls than anyone else, and most of the errors have been on throws," said Gardner. "We've been working on cleaning up some things, and he's made progress."

"On defense, I'm just focused on making all the routine plays," Lee said. "I've been working on backhanding, too."

Montgomery, like Lee, got off to a slow start, going 10-14 in April. But the Biscuits have had a winning record every month since and were tied for first place in the South Division with an 18-12 second-half record through Sunday.

"We have the best hitting in the league," Lee said. "Hopefully, we can keep that up. Personally, I can help us win by getting on base and scoring runs."

As much as Lee is focused on finishing well with the Biscuits and helping them to a playoff spot, his thoughts are also on Tampa Bay.

"Definitely, always thinking about the Rays," he said. "That's why we're all here and playing hard. We watch them [in the clubhouse] a lot, too, and I like following them."

As Lee knows, Tampa Bay doesn't have a full-time regular shortstop at the moment. As early as next year, it could be him.

All he has to do is be disciplined at the plate, keep the ball out of the air and let his speed work for him offensively. The defense will take care of itself.

"He's a special player, and he's playing with a purpose," Gardner said. "He's made a lot of progress."

In brief

All or nothing: Kyle Skipworth homered in three straight games, including a pair of round-trippers July 14 in Pensacola, but it's been pretty much all or nothing for the Jacksonville catcher this year. He's batting .208 with 98 strikeouts in 81 games, but of his 60 hits, 24 have gone for extra bases, including 11 homers. Skipworth, 22, was the sixth overall pick by the Marlins in the 2008 Draft and is rated as Miami's No. 13 prospect.

Painful pull: Birmingham right-hander Andre Rienzo had to leave a start against Montgomery after just eight pitches when he pulled a hamstring going after a bunt. Rienzo, who was placed on the disabled list, is 3-1 with a 2.91 ERA in seven games with the Barons after going 3-0 with a 1.08 ERA for Winston-Salem in the Class A Advanced Carolina League. The native of Brazil served a 50-game drug suspension early this season.

Playing swimmingly: Pensacola has won nine of its past 10 series and is tied for first place with Montgomery in the South Division's second-half race at 18-12. The Blue Wahoos won eight series in a row before losing three of four against Jacksonville, then bounced back to win three of four at first-half champion Mobile. Pensacola finished third in the first half at 34-35.

Red-hot return: Jackson first baseman Rich Poythress is batting .397 since returning to the Generals and has hit safely in 17 of 18 games. Seattle's second-round pick in the 2009 Draft was hitting .259 when he went on the disabled list in May, but has raised his average to .309 since his return. He also has 26 walks in 49 games, lifting his on-base percentage to .402.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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