Cody Ross had hit leadoff once in his professional career before this season. And, well, things didn't work out very well.
“It was in West Michigan, and Bruce [Fields] was the manager,” Ross said. “I did it one time, and I think I struck out three times - maybe saw nine pitches. Bruce told me I would never be a leadoff hitter, and I laughed.”
But this season Ross has had the last laugh. This season the 22-year-old outfielder has used a return to the leadoff spot to spur a batting surge that has helped him regain his spot among the top prospects in the Tigers' organization.
In April Ross struggled at the plate, batting just .215 in 23 games. He struck out 29 times and had just seven extra-base hits.
“Coming up through the Tigers' system, I've always started pretty hot, and the months of April have been pretty good generally,” Ross said. “Here I was scuffling, and I didn't know what was going on.
“I never doubted myself; I always have a lot of confidence. So it may be just the fact that I wasn't mentally prepared when I went to the plate in April. These guys in Triple-A are older guys, veteran players who know how to get you out. Mentally I don't think I was there yet.”
At the end of April Ross said he did tinker with his swing a bit. “I had my hands up pretty high,” he said. “I pulled them down a hair and tried to shorten my swing to put the good part of the bat on the ball. That was about it; nothing really dramatic.”
The dramatic move came in early May when Hens manager Larry Parrish, searching for a leadoff man, installed Ross in the first spot in the batting order.
“[Parrish] put me in the leadoff spot, but told me, `Don't act like a leadoff hitter. Don't take strikes down the middle. You're not a leadoff hitter - go up there and act like you're a three-four-five-six hitter and hit the ball with authority,'” Ross said. “And I did. I don't know how many times I've led off and hit the first pitch, but that has been my approach. Often the first pitch of the game is a good pitch to hit because the pitcher is trying to establish his game with a strike.”
The move has been good for Ross, who hit .311 in May with eight doubles, two triples and four homers along with 16 RBIs. He had 10 multi-hit games and cut his strikeouts in half, fanning just 16 times.
His big comeback has helped his season statistics rebound; for the season he is batting .277 with seven homers and 27 RBIs along with 29 runs scored. Ross also has recaptured the attention of scouts, many of whom still think he isn't enough of a prospect to play in the major leagues.
“Since I was 14 or 15 years old people said I was too small, too little to do this or that. I didn't buy into it,” the 5-11, 180-pounder said. “It gets on my nerves. When someone tells me I can't do something, that just makes me want to do it that much more. If I don't do it, I get mad and work that much harder to do it, just to prove them wrong and just to prove to myself that I can do it.
“I'm a big over-achiever. I want to hit 50 home runs and drive in 150 some day. That will likely never happen, but I set really high goals for myself, and if I don't reach them, that's not good enough. I really want to get better and better.”
But Ross isn't focused on numbers in his first season in Triple-A. “Mostly what I'm trying to do is mold myself into [a player] that's really mentally tough,” he said. “This game is so mental, especially at this level. In Double-A or Single-A, it's a lot more physical. Here it's more finesse. It's a bunch of veteran guys who have played this game and are mentally tough. They know what to do with the ball when they get it; they know what's going to go on in the next play.”
Ross admitted he enjoyed hitting leadoff, but he also realizes the return of Andres Torres to the Mud Hens probably has brought an end to his days of hitting leadoff. “Yeah, I like to start off the game - it has been fun,” Ross said of batting first. “But Andres is a 10-times better leadoff hitter than I am. He gets on and runs around the bases like no one I've ever seen before.
“But to hit after him? That should be even more fun.”