Brewers' Morris grinding through another slow start
First base prospect still looking for spring's first hit, refuses to get discouraged
PHOENIX -- This spring was supposed to be different for Hunter Morris, the Brewers' first-base prospect who was given a chance to win a big league job last year and wilted in the Arizona sunshine.
He returned a year later with experience. He had some swagger. He vowed it wouldn't happen again.
And yet there he was Friday morning, dripping in sweat after a stint in the batting cage, working hard to find his first Cactus League hit. By the end of another hitless day, Morris would be 0-for-12 in his first eight Cactus League games..
"You know what?" he said, wiping his brow. "I am a lot better at this point than I was last year. I feel like last year, the wheels were just spinning out of control. Right now, I've got a plan and I'm sticking to it. I know in the end it's going to come together."
It has come together before for the Huntsville, Ala. native, who is 25 now. He was 23 in 2012 when he was a hometown star for the Brewers' Double-A affiliate and won Southern League MVP honors, batting .303 and leading the league with 158 hits, 28 home runs, 113 RBIs and a .563 slugging percentage in 136 games.
But when the Brewers suffered a remarkable spate of injuries to their first basemen before the 2013 season -- first Corey Hart, then Mat Gamel, then Taylor Green, all lost for the season -- Morris fell flat.
He went 3-for-26 and was returned to Minor League camp.
"I started pressing, everybody could see it, and I could feel it," Morris said last month on the day Brewers position players reported to camp. "That is not going to happen again."
Two weeks later, one wonders: Is it happening again?
"He's getting his work in," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He's good with the hitting coaches in the morning. I know defensively he's coming along nice. He's just not getting hits in games.
"That's OK. When you've got 10 at-bats at the beginning, that's OK."
Roenicke realizes that it must be tough on Morris to start slow two years in a row.
"And I'm sure he's thinking about it," Roenicke said. "But he's got to stay positive and figure this out. He knows what situation he is [in] this year. This year is a little bit different than it was last year, having three veteran guys there [newcomers Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay and 2013 holdover Juan Francisco], Francisco counting as a veteran. I know [Morris] wants to impress us, but the main focus is trying to get his swing right so going into the season he can have a great year."
Because the Brewers have other options for first base at the Major League level, hitting coaches Johnny Narron and Bob Skube have prioritized Morris' mechanical work over his Cactus League batting average. Skube is the hitting coach at Triple-A Nashville and was with Morris through all of last season.
They have found a flaw with the mechanics of Morris' swing.
"It's a hands' thing," Morris said. "I feel like everything is in the right position, but when my hands get going too fast, the barrel doesn't really have time to get up and get into the zone with any length. Really, right now, I'm giving myself only one perfect contact point, which I have to hit or I'm going to miss [the baseball].
"I relate it to a golf swing. If you hit a driver and you try to swing as hard as you can, the club head never gets there and you fan it off to the right. You have to let the club head go with your hands. Everything has got to be in sync.
"Finding a way to do that is the hard part, and that's why it's taken me the better part of a year to put my thumb on it."
Equally important, Morris said, are the adjustments he and Skube tried, and abandoned, last year in Nashville. Morris had a pedestrian season, hitting .247 with 24 home runs and 73 RBIs.
He did not get a September call-up, even though the Brewers knew they would have to add Morris to the 40-man roster in November, anyway. That was disappointing, said Morris, who would have liked to get the "first call-up jitters" out of the way. A week after the end of the Minor League season, general manager Doug Melvin called to offer an explanation and encouragement.
Morris was supposed to continue his work in Venezuela over the winter, but sustained a minor knee injury diving for a ball in his third game, and was shut down.
Friday brought a boost to his psyche. Morris' wife, Macie, and son Tripp, who became a fan favorite in Huntsville during dad's sensational 2012, arrived in Phoenix for a visit.
"Last year, I was trying to do something new every day," Morris said. "Now, I'm still confident in what I'm going to do. We have a lot of time left in the spring, and I'm not overly concerned about it. I'm certainly not off to a good start, but it's the first week. I'm not putting nearly as much pressure on myself as I did last year.
"I feel like it's just a click away from being locked in. It may just take one swing to get it going."