HOUSTON -- Brett Wallace was a tad bit late on a slider, but he still managed to keep his bat in the strike zone long enough to make contact. With a thunderous crack, Wallace sent a majestic 433-foot blast high over the Wrigley Field ivy for a three-run homer on Tuesday night.
Wallace briefly admired his mammoth shot at home plate in a way that makes you believe he wasn't surprised. He'd put in enough work during Spring Training, taken enough rips in the Minor Leagues, dripped enough sweat in the batting cages, he wanted to embrace the moment.
With five homers in only 83 at-bats in two different stints with the Astros this year, Wallace appears to have figured out his power stroke. If so, Houston might be able to rely on him as the club rebuild its lineup for the future.
"I feel good where I'm at and I need to keep going and keep preparing," Wallace said.
Wallace, dubbed a "hitting machine" after being acquired by former general manager Ed Wade to replace Lance Berkman at first base in 2010, hasn't quite lived up to the billing. Wallace struggled in his debut that year and got off to a quick start in 2011 before being sent down, finishing with a .259 batting average and five homers in 336 at-bats for the Astros.
So Wallace went to work. He dropped more than 30 pounds in the offseason and is clearly leaner and in better shape. Wallace worked tirelessly in the spring with hitting coach Mike Barnett and special assistant to the general manager/player development Dan Radison on improving his path to the ball, using his legs more and pulling the ball.
The result? A trimmer Wallace is hitting .289 and has already matched last year's home run total in 253 fewer at-bats.
"It's obviously going to be a work in progress, but we did a lot of work in loosening up my back side and kind of just staying with my legs," Wallace said. "It's kind of something everyone talked to me about, using my legs and using them to hit for more power. And I think the more at-bats I've gotten throughout pro ball, we've been able to get me to that comfort level with using them, and that's where I'm at right now."
Wallace has been splitting time at third base and first base this year, but the Astros will find a place to play him if he continues to hit. He's never worried about expectations or numbers -- he has 63 homers in 1,533 career Minor League at-bats -- and has focused more on preparation.
"I'm going to go out there and hold myself to my own level of expectation," Wallace said. "I think the biggest thing was getting adjusted to the game up here. You have to get your at-bats, and sometimes you have to struggle and learn from it. When you struggle, you figure out the things they're doing to you and things you need to improve on."
Even when Wallace was going good as the starter at first base early in the 2011 season, he still wasn't hitting for much power and wasn't pulling the ball to right field enough.
"He was a guy that really hit everything the other way," Barnett said." And we wanted to get him more squared up and maintain his posture so his path could be better, and he's really worked real hard on getting himself in a downhill plane, making sure he gets started on time and making sure his stride is more straight ahead, which allows him more range with the bat going back to front."
The weight loss helped Wallace to rotate his back hip easier. It also made it easier to repeat the proper swing and lower body mechanics, because there's less stress on his hips.
"I obviously hit for more [power] previously in my Minor League career, and sometimes you have to struggle to get to where you need to be," Wallace said. "This is now me getting to a level of comfort to where I can go out there and really be aggressive and try to drive the ball, and the work we put in during Spring Training helped me be consistent in my lower body, which is going to help me hit for more power."
Barnett sees the potential coming together before his eyes. He sees the ball coming off of Wallace's bat more consistently and believes Wallace will keep developing more power with more time in the Major Leagues. Wallace has only 563 career at-bats, which is about as many a regular starter might get in a full season.
"We've always known he can hit, and now it's about making the initial adjustment to be able to do it at this level," Barnett said. "I just don't think that guys just jump onto the scene. There's very few of them -- the Ryan Brauns, the Albert Pujolses, a kid like a Mike Trout looks like he might be one of those guys. But those types of people are few and far between. And for me, it usually takes you 1,500-2,000 at-bats in the Minor Leagues and another 1,500-2,000 here before you've got your feet on the ground."
In other words, Barnett says most guys don't establish themselves until their third of fourth year in the big leagues.
"He's in that process," Barnett said. "The biggest thing I'm happy with is he has a real good understanding of what he's trying to do, and that's going to allow him to be more consistent. Hopefully, we're going to see that guy that everybody raved about and we thought he could be."