Commentary

Slump solution: Don't mess with Tex

Struggling first baseman stops listening, starts hitting as Yanks build win streak

Updated: May 27, 2012, 8:16 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

OAKLAND, Calif. -- For Mark Teixeira, the solution to his hitting woes may have been as simple as telling the voices inside his head to kindly shut the heck up.

This is not to imply that the New York Yankees first baseman is delusional, but simply human. As in listening to all sorts of advice from all sorts of people, some of it good, some not so good, and when taken in one big gulp, all of it confusing.

So after Teixeira busted out of his early slump in a big way on Saturday afternoon, with two home runs, four hits and five RBIs in the Yankees' 9-2 victory over the Athletics at Oakland Coliseum, he summed up his dilemma thusly: "I tried to make everybody happy."

[+] EnlargeMark Teixeira and Robinson Cano
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuMark Teixeira and Robinson Cano were a combined 7-for-10.

He declined to identify just who "everybody" is, but it is safe to assume it is an amalgamation of coaches, teammates, friends and family members, all of whom had their own theories for why Teixeira, a career .280 hitter, was spending most of May mired in the quicksand of the .220s.

And after a while, even the most confident of professional athletes might be tempted to consider the possibility that some, or all, of them had a point.

In truth, the voices started working on Teixeira over the winter, and maybe even as far back as last season, when, although amassing his customary power numbers -- 39 homers and 111 RBIs -- he finished up with a relatively anemic batting average of .248.

Last season, there was an easy and convenient culprit: The Shift. And when Teixeira showed up at spring training, it was with a new body, peeled of about 20 pounds after a raw-juice regimen, and a new attitude: Instead of banging his head into the shift, he would try to work around it. Go the other way. Lay down a bunt now and then. In other words, get away from all the things that had gotten him this far.

This year, another culprit reared its ugly head: The Cough. For more than a month now, Teixeira has been wracked with the kind of chest rattles that used to send patients to Blackwell's Island for a long and uncertain recovery.

Between The Shift and The Cough, Teixeira looked nothing like the player who had averaged 35 home runs and 113 RBIs for each of his first nine seasons, and he certainly didn't look like what the Yankees had made him, a $22.5 million player for eight years. In fact, he didn't even look like a No. 5 hitter anymore, and for a time he wasn't after Joe Girardi dropped him to seventh in the batting order.

But to hear Teixeira tell it, this week represented something of a breakthrough, an epiphany if you will, when this 32-year-old with a great past, a miserable present and an uncertain future suddenly realized it was time to go back to what he had always been.

Simply put, Teixeira said, "I tried. It didn't work."

It was similar to what Derek Jeter said last season after months of trying to rebuild a swing that had served him quite well for 15 seasons, and that decision had worked out well for Jeter, who is now batting .342.

And for the past couple of days at least, it has worked well for Teixeira, who after having homered Friday night added two more on Saturday, the first off former teammate Bartolo Colon in the fourth inning, and the second in the ninth, with a runner on, off reliever Graham Godfrey.

Just for good measure, he dealt a blow to The Shift, as well, singling twice, once driving in two runs, despite hitting the ball right at five fielders bunched into half a baseball diamond.

"A little bit of that is luck, it really is," Teixeira said. "But you hit the ball hard, and you hope to find a hole."

The home runs, however, are another story. "They're not luck," he said.

For Teixeira, the home runs are the residue of design, a combination of his natural uppercut stroke, his incorrigible tendency to pull the ball from both sides of the plate, and his newly rediscovered attitude toward hitting.

It came to him, he said, last weekend, when Girardi decided to send The Cough to bed for three days in an attempt to get rid of it once and for all.

"During those days off, I was getting a little bit of energy back, feeling a little better, and then just assessing," he said. "That's when I decided, let's wipe the slate clean. What do I need to do to get back to being me? [Hitting coach] Kevin [Long] and I decided, 'OK, if you're feeling good, and you've got your bat speed back, swing hard, and let's start driving the ball again.'"

If it sounds too simple, it probably is, but as Girardi said after the game, "There's a lot of reasons it could be happening. But as long as it's happening, I don't care what the reasons are."

For the past couple of weeks, Girardi has tried to protect Teixeira by affecting not to understand why so much of "the focus" was on his non-productive No. 5 hitter, and by indicting the rest of his lineup for similar sins of non-production.

But it was nearly impossible to obscure the truth, that in a lineup of early-season underachievers, Teixeira was the worst offender of all.

However, one point Girardi made was valid before Teixeira's breakout game on Saturday, and even more valid now: The true measure of Mark Teixeira's value lies in his run production, not his batting average.

"He is not a .240 hitter," Girardi said. But, asked if Teixeira could still hit 30-plus homers and drive in 110 runs while hitting .240, Girardi said, "I'll take it."

And why not? The Yankees have Jeter to hit for average and get on base, and Alex Rodriguez to hit his .270 with 25 or so home runs, and Robby Cano, who also homered on Saturday, to do a lot of everything, and they might even get Brett Gardner back to set the table in his own unique way.

So is it really all that important for Teixeira to hit 25 points higher at the expense of homers and RBIs? Teixeira, for one, doesn't think so.

"I'd love to hit for a higher average, of course, but trying to hit for a higher average takes away from the kind of hitter I am," he said. "If you ask anybody, would you rather take the higher average or 30 [home runs] and 100 [RBIs], you'd take 30 and 100 every time.

"It takes three singles to get a run in. It only takes one home run. And we have to score runs to win. No one cares what our average is. Everyone cares how many runs we score, how many games we win."

That sounds pretty simple, but sometimes, even the simplest thing can't be heard over the clamor of other voices inside one's head.

For one day at least, Mark Teixeira turned off the voices, and turned the power back on.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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