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HoJo helping Smoak refine approach

Former All-Star switch-hitter, first baseman have special understanding

SEATTLE -- First baseman Justin Smoak and Mariners hitting coach Howard Johnson have more than your typical player/instructor relationship.

In Johnson, Smoak has a former switch-hitter to help him work on his approach and swing path. While playing for the New York Mets in 1991, Johnson became the first player who hit from both sides of the plate to lead the National League in home runs, hitting 38. He drove in 117 runs, also tops in the NL that season.

"He's a great guy to talk to. There's certain situations with certain guys he tells you what to expect," Smoak, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound switch-hitter, said of Johnson. "We get scouting reports and everything else, but to have a guy that's been through it -- it's good to have him right there."

In Smoak, Johnson has a way to get to Safeco Field -- at least a few times a week.

"I ride with him to the park a lot, and I'll remind him to just take it a day at a time, and that really the goal is to not get too far ahead of yourself," Johnson said. "My wife needs the car, so I ride with him."

Johnson, 53, said that like Smoak, he struggled during his career from the right side of the plate, which gives him the background to impart a little extra wisdom when they carpool to the yard. During the season, they both live near Seattle's waterfront.

"It gives us a chance to chat every day," Johnson said. "That's good."

Johnson posted a .249/.340/.446 slash line from 1982-95 with the Tigers, Mets, Rockies and Cubs. He made the NL All-Star team in 1989 and '91, and he was part of Detroit's 1984 World Series championship team and the '86 Miracle Mets.

Johnson had the sort of power numbers Mariners fans envisioned for Smoak when the club acquired him in a multiplayer deal from the Texas Rangers in July 2010, sending ace southpaw Cliff Lee, reliever Mark Lowe and $2.25 million to their AL West foe in exchange for the first baseman, right-hander Blake Beavan, reliever Josh Lueke and prospect Matthew Lawson.

Smoak has a .234 batting average this year, but he is on pace to drive in 100 runs, a feat he's never accomplished. In 40 games, he has six home runs, 26 RBIs and nine doubles.

Entering Thursday, Smoak was leading the MLB with 19 two-out RBIs and was batting .500 (8-for-16) with two outs and RISP.

What's led to the improved clutch stats?

"I think it's more of a mindset of being comfortable in the box," Smoak said. "Every time you get a guy in scoring position, you do what you can to get a good pitch and try not to miss it."

Earlier this week, ESPN analyst Mark Simon released a chart stating that Smoak had the third-highest number of balls he categorized as "hard hit" in the Major Leagues, trailing only Troy Tulowitzki and David Ortiz.

There are other encouraging signs. Staring at a potential 0-for-5 on Monday night, Smoak launched an 0-2 splitter from Lueke, now with the Rays, over the wall in left-center.

In the scheme of the game, the two-run homer capped Seattle's three-run eighth inning and extended the lead to 12-4.

In the scheme of Smoak's season, it perhaps meant more. Now in his fifth year with the Mariners, the 27-year-old from Goose Creek, S.C., said he's trying to refine his offensive approach.

What exactly is that?

"Making sure [Smoak's] not leaking out too early and trying to keep both hands through the hitting area and not trying to get his upper half too active," Johnson explained.

In other words, Smoak isn't focused on his batting average or power numbers. He said it helps him to not dwell on his previous at-bats -- especially when the pitches he hits hard aren't falling for base hits.

If Smoak reaches 525 plate appearances this year, he will earn $3.65 million in 2015, though the Mariners have a $150,000 buyout option.

"I like what I see," Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon said of Smoak earlier this week. "[He's] probably going to cost me a lot of money, but I hope he does, if he keeps hitting this way."

Smoak is starting to find his confidence, Johnson said.

"For, me it's not worrying about the result," Smoak said. "[It's] something I've got caught up in in the last couple years. I'd hit a ball hard right at somebody, and they would catch it, and my day was done."

Through 40 games, there are ample reasons to think Smoak's best years are still ahead.

Adam Lewis is an associate reporter for
Read More: Seattle Mariners, Justin Smoak