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The Zen-like simplicity of Adrian Gonzalez's approach

4/9/2015

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers wanted to encourage as many of their players as possible to do their conditioning in the fabulously expensive new workout facilities at Dodger Stadium last winter, so they asked strength and conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel to spend his winter at the ballpark.

Adrian Gonzalez stopped by frequently and, by February, it showed. The big first baseman had a sleeker look and better mobility. Often the contrarian, Gonzalez says he doubts it has had anything to do with his fast start in 2015.

"Conditioning means zero in success on the field," Gonzalez said after mashing three home runs for the first time in his career in the Dodgers' 7-4 win over the San Diego Padres Wednesday night. "The conditioning is so you stay healthy, but it doesn't translate to on-field success."

In a way, that's about 90 percent of the battle in Gonzalez's case, though; over a 10-year major league career, he has proven that when healthy, he will produce with machine-like results. And with his 33rd birthday a month away, people could be forgiven for wondering if -- or, more accurately when -- the decline phase of Gonzalez's career will arrive.

He even referenced it himself in Andrew Friedman's introductory news conference when he asked the team's new president of baseball operations if he was looking for a younger, faster, stronger first baseman.

Friedman muttered "No" at the time and, after watching his first baseman's first three games, he would probably say "No," but sprinkle in an expletive or two. There have been a lot of dangerous hitters in baseball history. There have been a lot of fast starts in Aprils past, but until Wednesday, nothing like this. Gonzalez became the first hitter in baseball history to hit five home runs in his team's first three games, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

Gonzalez's slugging percentage is 2.077, his OPS is 2.846. Sure, three games and all that, but these are absurdities.

Besides, Andrew Cashner is an imposing pitcher. He's a big, tall guy with a bushy beard and a fastball that creeps frighteningly close to 100 mph. But he's also apparently a bit stubborn, because he kept trying to stick that fastball low and inside to Gonzalez, despite what Gonzalez kept doing to them -- sending them soaring toward, and over, the right-field wall.

Maybe it was a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. He couldn't keep looking for the same pitch in the same location, could he? There are few things Gonzalez takes greater pride in, however, than out-thinking pitchers, and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly would absolutely love for his team's younger hitters to watch the way Gonzalez works: clinically.

"He's just that guy who understands what they're trying to do to you," Mattingly said.

Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy has faced Gonzalez infrequently, with a baker's dozen plate appearances between the two, but he has also been beaten for six hits in those at-bats, including a home run.

"There's so much discipline in his at-bats," McCarthy said. "He knows exactly where the barrel is at all times. It's very hard to fool him."

Like pretty much any hitter, Gonzalez is prone to slumps. He self-corrects better than most and tends to keep his numbers steadily vibrant over the long haul because of his machine-like approach and attention to detail.

More than anything, he hits to the situation. More emotional hitters would have been swinging wildly with a chance to hit a fourth home run, but in the sixth inning, against lefty Frank Garces, Gonzalez got simple. He hit a nice, smooth single to center field. It happened to drive in Justin Turner with what just might have been a crucial run. Did you watch the work of the Dodgers' bullpen Tuesday night? Nobody seems to care anymore in this SABR-dominated era, but Gonzalez did lead the majors in RBIs last season.

"I definitely wasn't thinking of hitting another [home run] against the lefty, just thinking, 'Hit something hard up the middle,'" Gonzalez said. "I told myself, 'Don't try to do too much.'"

There's something to admire in a fellow who can make so much out of so little.