* INF Justin Atkinson (Surrey, B.C.) owns a .306 batting average with seven doubles, a triple, a homer and 20 RBIs in 53 games, showing zero adjustment time coming off the disabled list. .... 2014 Canadians drafted … Canadians in Minors … Canadians in college summer ball …. Canadians in College 2015 Canadian draft list Letters of Intent
By Alexis Brudnicki
LANSING, Mich. – It’s not easy for a baseball player to come back from a stint on the disabled list and immediately produce out of the lineup.
Adjustments need to be made, timing has to be found again and perfected, and live hitting just isn’t the same as taking balls in the batting cage.
Justin Atkinson seemed to figure it out after his first stay on the DL this season, staying hot after leading the Lansing Lugnuts in average through the first couple months of the season and returning swinging the bat exactly the way he did when he left with a wrist injury, though the 21-year-old doesn’t know how he did it.
“It beats me,” he said. “I can’t really explain it. I do everything practice-wise, hitting and all that stuff, I just don’t play any games obviously. So I guess it’s that, staying with it and keeping that routine and not taking a lot of time off helps.”
After his second stint away from the active roster, reinjuring his wrist just by playing after the original ailment occurred when he was hit by a pitch, Atkinson admits that while he is still doing well, he isn’t where he wants to be.
“I’m not where other guys are at,” the native of Surrey, BC said. “I was talking to other guys before and sometimes when the ball comes in I’ll look up at the radar gun and it will be 89 or 90 [miles an hour] and it will look to me like it’s 95.
“That’s probably the biggest thing for me so far because these guys have been playing all year and they’ve been seeing pitches. Everything seems so fast to me right now but I’m starting to get that feel back.”
On the season, the infielder is hitting .306/.371/.371 with a home run, a triple, seven doubles and 20 RBIs in 53 games. He’s missed significant time, and even tried to play through the second injury and stay active, before he realized he couldn’t.
“I took two swings in Great Lakes,” Atkinson said. “The first one, I felt a lot of pain so I just shook it off and stepped in the box again. The second swing it was another foul ball and I heard a pop. [Athletic trainer] Drew [MacDonald] came out, [manager John Tamargo] came out, and I told them what happened. They said, ‘You’re done.’ That was it...
“It’s frustrating obviously. To go on [the DL the first time], sit for that amount of time, and then come back and continue what I was doing and then have that setback again, it’s not something you want.”
What’s helped Atkinson the most through his first full season in the Midwest League is the time and work Lansing hitting coach Ken Huckaby has put in with him. The young player credits Huckaby for many of the successes and adjustments he’s found and made throughout the season.
“Huck and I have been working a lot in the cage,” Atkinson said. “At the beginning of the year I struggled and then we just sat down, talked about it, he gave me a couple ideas to work with and it’s gone from there. I’ve got a whole bunch of tape in my helmet, just reminders to myself to relax, use your hands, and a big thing he says, don’t panic.”
Though they aren’t frequent now, there are certainly times when Atkinson had those panic moments.
“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I’m going to say yeah. Sometimes I would feel myself squeezing the bat in my hands and I would tense up, but now sometimes I can’t even feel that the bat is in my hands. Now it’s just really loose.
“I would take a couple swings and I would look down at Huck and he would be giving me a ‘relax’ motion, just to relax at the plate. He’s giving me little reminders here and there and it’s been working out.”
Along with the daily helmet reminders, Atkinson is not only better at the plate but he’s also becoming a smarter hitter. He’s more focused this year on hitting to the situation and he’s done well as a student of the game.
“With situational hitting, I feel I’ve grown, and in the organization it’s a big thing,” Atkinson said. “They want to preach situational hitting because it gets runs in. If a guy gets a double, get him over, he’s on third base with [fewer] than two outs and all you’ve got to do is hit a ground ball and that’s one run for us. Situational hitting is key.”
Being set back by a pitch aimed for his head that instead hit him in the wrist, then again by reinjuring the same wrist, plus a period of incredible soreness after fouling a ball into his own foot, Atkinson has spent this year learning how to deal with some of the frustrations of baseball he hadn’t had much experience with previously.
“The foot incident – that can happen any day,” Atkinson said. “But the wrist it was wrong person, wrong time, bad timing. The second time when I came back it wasn’t 100 per cent so...there was a higher chance that it would happen.
“[Tamargo] pulled me into the office and told me I was going on the DL and they wanted me to heal my wrist 100 per cent before I came off because they didn’t want it to happen again. I understand what he was saying and it made sense but...it was disappointing.
“I wanted to play, but at the same time I’ve got to look out for myself and they’re looking out for me. Sometimes you’ve just got to let them do what they think is best.”
-- Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis