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'I know I belong': Stewart turning heads at camp

@beckjason
July 9, 2020

DETROIT -- If a player hits for the cycle in an intrasquad game and no fans are in the ballpark are there to see it, did it really happen? Yes, it would have. And it would’ve counted in Christin Stewart’s mind had he gotten the triple he needed during Thursday's

DETROIT -- If a player hits for the cycle in an intrasquad game and no fans are in the ballpark are there to see it, did it really happen?

Yes, it would have. And it would’ve counted in Christin Stewart’s mind had he gotten the triple he needed during Thursday's action.

“If I had a chance, I was definitely going to go for it,” Stewart said, laughing. “Even if I was going to get thrown out, I was going to go for it.”

Whether it would’ve counted or not, the statement was clear to Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire. His young left fielder, who came to Spring Training five months ago looking to win his job back, is even more determined in Summer Camp.

“That's how you make an impression,” Gardenhire said.

Notes: Norris has COVID-19; Reyes joins camp

All four of Stewart's hits were notable. He had a lefty-lefty meeting with Matthew Boyd in his first at-bat and lined a two-out single over a shifted infield into right to plate a run.

“Stew does pretty decent against lefties,” Gardenhire said. “When he's going good and swinging the bat well, he hangs in there pretty good. He doesn't have much fear.”

Two innings later, Stewart faced Boyd again and lined a ball a little deeper into right-center. But it was his approach on the bases that was notable. He took off out of the box expecting to stretch a double, seemingly surprising right fielder Jorge Bonifacio, who fumbled the ball as Stewart rounded first.

The extra base didn’t result in a run, but it reflected the improved agility and aggressiveness Stewart has been showing since Spring Training, when he reported to camp with a lower body fat percentage following an offseason nutrition plan. He put a little weight back on during the break, he said, but it was good weight.

“I feel a little more agile and a little more flexible,” Stewart said. “What I did last year was working on more start-and-stop type of stuff with agility and plyometrics.”

Said Gardenhire: “He made a good adjustment this winter, got himself in the best shape you can get in. And here we go.”

The next time up, Stewart needed only to trot around the bases. With an empty ballpark, the sound of his drive on a David McKay offering echoed off the seats midway up the right-field stands.

The Tigers badly need that from Stewart this year -- production from a left-handed power threat in a predominantly right-handed-hitting lineup.

“This is a talented young man that is going to have to figure it out,” Gardenhire said. “And hopefully this is the start of a big career for him, because he can hit. He can really hit.”

Stewart managed a single for his fourth hit. However, it was a good single -- a line drive back through the middle after he pulled his previous three hits. It reflected some tips hitting coach Joe Vavra gave the 26-year-old to work on when Spring Training was suspended.

“I said, ‘This [shutdown] might last, and there’s a few mechanical adjustments I’d like to see you make. It’s up to you. Just with my history of players and seeing the likes of guys with similar batting mechanics, I think if you make a few simple ones, they’re going to pay big dividends,'" Vavra recalled.

“And for the most part, he’s made some nice mechanical adjustments. It just quiets him down. He’s not pulling off the ball. When he does start hooking a few balls, he ends up being able to stay inside of it. He doesn’t have to necessarily go the other way, but he does, and then it straightens him back out to the pull side where the balls straighten out and they fly further.”

Stewart took Vavra’s ideas with him to his offseason home in Nashville, Tenn., where he took at-bats against Reds ace Sonny Gray and Rangers starter Lance Lynn. The adjustments, he said, were small.

“Beginning with my setup, I just became more relaxed, not as stiff," Stewart said, "and being more relaxed has helped me stay through the ball better."

Stewart felt he was turning a corner this spring after a rough start, but then Spring Training was shut down. Through two intrasquad games, he seems to have picked up where he left off, and it looks like he’ll face Gray again on Opening Day in Cincinnati in two weeks.

“I know I belong. I know my abilities, I know my strengths and I know what I can do,” Stewart said. “At the end of the day, all you can control is your attitude and effort. I’m just giving it everything I’ve got and I have a hunger every time I’m out there to do the best I can. I’m really focused and I’m excited about this year.”

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.