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Can Hafner return to past glories?

By Sheldon Published: October 4, 2009

BOSTON: The Indians' lineup hasn't been nearly as robust since Travis Hafner was regularly hammering pitches into the seats in 2006.

That was the year Hafner hit 42 home runs, amassed 117 RBI and batted .308. Then came the mysterious on and off slump of 2007 (.266, 24 HR, 100 RBI), followed by the injury-filled season of 2008, ending in October surgery to repair a shoulder injury.

This season was spent regaining strength in the shoulder. When Hafner finally returned to the team for good in early June, he was required to rest the shoulder every three or four days, hindering his ability to recover his batting eye and his swing.

""I still think I got a lot of out this season,'' Hafner said. ""But to have a full off season will be a big benefit to me. I need to get on my regular off-season workout routine.''

Hafner finished the schedule with a .272 batting average, 16 homers and 49 RBI in 338 at-bats. Optimistically, using those numbers to project a full 550-at-bats season, Hafner would hit 26 homers and drive in 80 runs.

But even those numbers don't add up to being the Hafner of old. So can he ever again be the hitter he once was?

""All these experiences can make you stronger and smarter,'' he said. ""I guess injuries are part of the game. I've had surgery before, but the shoulder is different. It's tougher to go through.

""So every time I get injured, I have a newfound respect for being healthy and getting to play the game.''

Physically, there probably is no reason why Hafner can't recapture the form that made him a discerning hitter willing to take a walk and a lethal run producer.

""I felt like my swing was a lot better for seven or eight weeks after I came back,'' he said. ""Then I struggled with consistency for the next couple of months. My plate discipline has not been where I wanted it to be.''

Not hitting the ball hard and far after an injury is one thing; swinging at bat pitches is another, something that Hafner seldom did before the injury.

""Plate discipline is big for me,'' he said. ""I'm a guy who walks a lot. That's a big part of my game. But now I go through periods when I don't see the ball well and swing at bat pitches.''

After two years of struggling, it's only natural that Hafner's good instincts have given way to doubt and overthinking.

""I can't be thinking mechanics or other things,'' he said. ""I need to keep things as simple as possible. See the ball and hit it.''

Next year probably will be test.

""At the end of the day,'' Hafner said, ""everything makes you stronger.''

The Indians are counting on it.

ONLY THE BEGINNING? -- Shin-Soo Choo became the first Asian-born major leaguer to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in a season when he went deep Saturday night.

Can he become a 30-30 player? ""Maybe,'' he said Sunday. ""That can be my next goal.''

""He did it in style last night, going the other way to hit it over the Monster,'' manager Eric Wedge said. ""He has the potential to do it (30-30).''

Choo might be the Indians' most dedicated player.

""He is a very consistent player for us who still has a lot of upside,'' Wedge said. ""He doesn't give at-bats away and fights through every game. That helps make him more consistent.''

Choo had doubts that he would reach 20 home runs, when he went through a power drought in July, but things started to pick up in August.

""When it got closer, people started to talk about it and it became kind of stressful,'' he said.

DEFENDING THE FAITH -- Wedge was asked if the constant series of roster rebuilds and tear downs can work in Cleveland.

""It's a market driven decision,'' he said. ""Fans should be hopeful that some of the moves we made in the last couple of years will let the team get there in the near future.''

A GOOD WALK SPOILED -- Victor Martinez lives within walking distance of Fenway Park, but he chooses to drive.

Why? Hordes of fans intercept him going to and from the ballpark, making it a lengthy and arduous journey.

LOTS OF TICKETS AVAILABLE -- The Tribe finished the season with home attendance of 1,766,242 in 79 dates, second smallest to Oakland in the American League and 26th in all of the majors. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Florida played to smaller crowds in the National League.

NO PREDICTIONS -- Wedge refused to pick a team to win the World Series but said, ""It's wide open. There are a lot of good teams. It will come down to which team gets the most quality starts and who can get that final out.''

ONE LAST INJURY -- Matt LaPorta jammed his toe on the Fenway Park wall as he tried to run down a drive in the sixth inning.


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