WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - As the firecracking sounds boomed out of the outdoor batting cage and bounced off the aluminum-sided walls yesterday, one thing became apparent: Travis Hafner was near.
Bravely standing 10 or so feet in front of Cleveland's DH, Indians hitting coach Derek Shelton underhanded baseballs toward Hafner before ducking for safety behind a protective screen.
CRACK! THWACK! KAPOW!
For 15 minutes, Hafner blasted balls to all corners of the netted cage, fine tuning his powerful swing.
The same one he couldn't find in 2007.
"It was a constant battle," Hafner said.
By Hafner's high standards, last season was a major
disappointment for the good-
natured 30-year-old, best known to Indians fans by his "Pronk" nickname. He batted .267 with 24 homers - six grand slams - and 100 RBIs, numbers and a season that would make most major leaguers proud.
Not Hafner. After setting career highs with 42 homers and 117 RBIs in 2006, he expected more of himself. It's not that he was an automatic out, he just couldn't string together hits as he had in the past.
"I guess I never really got into a groove last season," he said between forkfuls of a postworkout lunch of rice and chicken. "I kind of didn't have the feel that I've had for most of my career as far as my swing."
Hafner's bat didn't have its customary pop in '07. Balls that normally found the gaps fell into gloves instead. Ground balls that squirted through the infield, turned into routine double plays. And every time he got on a roll, it didn't last.
Although he'd never admit it, Hafner may have been distracted by contract negotiations that dragged on before he signed a four-year, $57 million deal in July.
"The whole year felt like, OK I'm close and a couple good games I'm over the hump," he said. "I just never got to the point where I was comfortable and I was able to get up there and hit like I wanted to."
Unfortunately for the Indians, Hafner's April-through-September struggles spilled over into October. In the AL playoffs, he batted .250 with one homer as Cleveland ousted the New York Yankees.
But against the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, Hafner hit only .148 (4 for 27) and struck out 12 times as the Indians blew a 3-1 lead and finished one win shy of the World Series.
"It was just a continuation of the regular season," he said. "It seems like when you're not swinging the bat well, your hitting zone is smaller and you can't handle as many pitches. I wasn't as tough an out as I have been in the past."
When he's going good, Hafner sprays line drives to all fields. But last year he hit more ground balls than ever before. He insists he wasn't affected by teams shifting their infielders to the right side to try and stop him.
"If I'm swinging the bat well, it's not going to matter a whole lot where they play," he said.
Indians manager Eric Wedge doesn't think the shift contributed to Hafner's slight slide.
"It was just one of those years that good hitters have from time to time," Wedge said. "He worked to fight through it and he still had some big hits for us. He still drove in 100 runs but I know he wasn't satisfied with it."
Hafner jumped back into baseball quicker than usual this winter. He and his wife, Amy, spent Thanksgiving in Costa Rica, but by December he was back at work in the indoor batting cages at Cleveland's Progressive Field.
It was in early January, when Hafner began hearing about his uncanny resemblance to actor Javier Bardem, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of psychotic assassin Anton Chigurh in the Oscar-winning film No Country For Old Men.
"One of my friends said, 'You've got to see it. There's a killer in it and he looks just like you,'•" Hafner said.
A few days ago, Hafner finally saw the movie with teammate David Dellucci.
"As soon as the guy came on screen, Dellucci was laughing and said, 'Yeah, it's dead on you.' I do look like him, except for the hair," Hafner said, referring to the villain's bad moptop haircut.
This spring, Hafner and his teammates have turned the page on last October's near-miss. They learned from it and hope to be better prepared the next time.
"When you make the playoffs and get a taste of it, you just want to keep experiencing it over and over," he said. "The playoffs are fantastic. It's a great atmosphere. You always want to be there. Once you get winning in your blood, there's nothing like it."
Indians pitcher Jake Westbrook was scratched from his scheduled start in today's spring training opener against the Houston Astros because of soreness in his right arm.
Westbrook doesn't expect the soreness to last. He has experienced similar discomfort in past training camps.
"I usually get this every year," he said yesterday. "I'm not a big fan of throwing bullpens every other day. It usually acts up on me."
Westbrook will throw a bullpen session today and see how his arm responds.
The 30-year-old right-hander is penciled in as Cleveland's No. 3 starter behind AL Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. Westbrook hopes to rebound from an up-and-down 2007 season. He spent more than a month on the disabled list with an abdominal strain and finished 6-9 with a 4.32 ERA in 25 starts.
Jeff Harris, who pitched at Triple-A Buffalo last season, will replace Westbrook in the Grapefruit League opener.28.02232 -81.73295