Left hand over right, Carlos Gomez watches ball after ball zip past into the netting behind him. They fly by at a high rate of speed, the Iron Mike Master Pitching Machine set up just feet away. He goes through his routine, sets up in the left-handed batter’s box, and watches pitches – 30, maybe 40, at a time.
Next, he begins to swing, trying to foul off as many as he can. Purposely hitting, but purposely missing.
Finally, he moves up, and calls Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach Johnny Narron in for flips. Here, Gomez only tries to touch bat on ball. Not to hit – that’s impossible at that distance and velocity – just touch.
He pantomimes the short motion in front of his locker, hands tucked tight to his body.
"It’s here to there," he said, pointing to a laundry basket across his from his locker, about four feet away. "It’s impossible to drive the ball. You want to just touch it. Kind of like playing pepper but real close and real hard."
This is a new routine for Gomez, who learned it this offseason from one of the greatest right-handed hitters in the last 50 years in good friend Manny Ramirez.
The 27-year-old Gomez was coming off his best season as in the major leagues in 2012, hitting a career best .260 with career highs in home runs (19) and stolen bases (37). A notorious free swinger, he also had his best on-base percentage at .305.
Yet Ramirez, he of the .312 career batting average and .411 OBP, saw a way for Gomez to improve at the plate. So, he approached his young friend.
The conversation centered around improving Gomez’s pitch selection, and increasing his ability to foul off tough offerings to increase the chances of getting a mistake he could capitalize on. The drill was also designed to put Gomez into an relatively uncomfortable hitting situation – lefty, pitches coming in quickly – to make him more comfortable in real games.
"He likes swinging from the left side, it helps balance his body as far as his swing mechanism," Brewers hitting coach Johnny Narron said. "He enjoys that. The other thing, with being close, it kind of sharpens his focus. If that helps him, that’s what we’re going to do."
A microcosm of that drill paying off was an at-bat late Thursday night against Cardinals reliever Mitchell Boggs. Gomez worked the count to 3-0, then fouled off three straight pitches, then took a walk to drive in a run. In his next at-bat against Edward Mujica, Gomez ripped the first pitch for a single.
"When I go to the game, I see the ball slow and I can make my approach more easy because I feel like when the people throw 95, 96, I’m feeling like they’re throwing 86," Gomez said. "It really helped. He taught me a few drills that really helped me feel comfortable at the plate. Not to hit the ball hard – I’m swinging the same – but to feel more comfortable."
Alex Gonzalez leaned back in his chair and glanced over at his teammate, thinking about the differences between the Gomez he saw once as an opponent, then up close last year, to the one that is currently leading the league in hitting.
"He works a lot in the cage, takes good a batting practice," Gonzalez said. "Then, game time is a lot different because they’re going to throw you any kind of pitches but he’s making great adjustments to be a great hitter.
"I think everybody wants to be a great hitter, but he’s not giving a pitch away, he doesn’t give an at-bat away. He always battles to the end, to try and find that something to hit – homers, doubles. That’s the way he does it."
Gonzalez, who carries one of the most intense dispositions of any player in the Brewers clubhouse, cracked a smile.
"He’s very aggressive at home plate," he said of Gomez. "He goes to home plate and tries to swing hard. His swing is what I look to as a pretty good swing, that’s why he makes a lot of swings hard because if that’s the pitch you want to hit you can swing hard. That’s why he falls down sometimes."
"To me, if you’re looking for a slider and you see it, why not swing hard? Put a good swing on it. If you have a good approach and adjustments to the pitcher, that’s why you can be aggressive."
That was the most important part about Ramirez’s tip for Gomez – it was meant to compliment and accentuate his aggressive style at the plate, not corral it.
"I’m an aggressive hitter – they have to come get me," Gomez said. "And it feel good to make them waste those pitches and it’s going to be good and anytime they make a mistake I always put a good swing on it. Even if I’m behind in the count I’m (going) to try to hit a hard line drive."
That approach is paying off, though it didn’t start that way.
In his first nine games, 37 plate appearances, he didn’t walk once, struck out seven times, and hit just .162. Despite the slow start, he wasn’t concerned. By Gomez’s estimation, he should have been hitting .340 right out of the gate, but the balls were right at someone. His .200 BAbip (batting average on balls in play) in that stretch bears that out.
"For all of us you don’t really focus too much on results," Ryan Braun said. "You have very little control over results. He’s been taking good batting practice, he’s having good at-bats. As long as he does that I think it’s inevitable that eventually he’ll start having some success. He’s really strong, he’s really fast, and as long as he puts the ball in play he’s got a good chance to get some hits."
Gomez has been continually putting the ball in play, but since April 14 they have been finding open spaces. Since then, he has hit .478, reached base nearly 54 percent of the time and has an incredible 1.408 OPS (on base plus slugging).
He also has 13 extra base hits in that stretch, and is currently on a 12-game hitting streak.
"He’s a tremendous talent," Narron said. "He’s worked extremely hard. He’s got aptitude. He listens to what I tell him and he applies it. He’s making himself better."
Gomez was looking to do that anyway this offseason, but then the Brewers rewarded his upward trend in production last year with a 3-year, $24 million extension in March. Rather than feel he accomplished something, the new deal only motivated him.
"That’s what it is. And, it’s more easy – like when you’re always going to come (to the ballpark) and you know you’re going to play no matter what," he said. "You’re more relaxed yourself. You play loosely, it’s not stressful, you don’t have to get two base hits to play tomorrow. Now I know I’m going to play the next day.
"Now you know you’re a premium part of the team. Just coming in here and preparing myself to play and win games. Now, you got paid. Now what are the other reasons? It’s to win games."
It’s what the Brewers began doing as soon as Gomez’s smashes started finding grass rather than leather on April 14, going 12-8 since.
Every day, Gomez works the pitching machine, watches the ball zip by time after time. He watches it off the black of the plate, then tries to foul some off, then tries to get a touch, all lefty. He heads to batting practice last of all, trying to hit a line drive home run to start the game with a good feeling.
But, might there be a little more to it all than just selecting pitches better?
Gomez pulls on his batting practice jersey and gets ready to hit.
"When I swing left-handed, then wrap the bat to the right hand – I feel like ‘The Man.’"
He hitches a pant leg, pulls his cap down, then heads out of the clubhouse.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.