Concern reached a crescendo around the end of April.
It was four weeks into the Indians season and second baseman Jason Kipnis was struggling to hit, batting .180 with three RBI through the first 15 games.
Was it a classic case of a sophomore slump? Had opposing pitchers studied enough of Kipnis during the offseason to figure out his weaknesses and exploit them after he had hit .257 with 22 doubles, 14 home runs and 76 RBI in his first full season in the major leagues in 2012?
Or could the kid, who had been prone to streakiness throughout his short minor-league career, handle the pressure?
Could Kipnis turn around his fortunes at the plate without having to go back down to the minors to make adjustments in games, being forced to move at a slower pace like many young players such as third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall did recently?
If there was any panic in the Indians clubhouse over which way the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Kipnis would go, it was difficult to discern.
“Remember early in the season when everyone was asking about Kip, and I said, ‘Hey, just relax?’ ” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “That’s because good players have a way to get to their level.
“I don’t know why, it just happens. Players that are cold, they get hot and get to their level. Some guys start off hitting and then tail off, but they get to their level. It’s just the way the game is.”
Although Francona was beginning his first season with the Indians, he had seen video of Kipnis while serving as an ESPN analyst. And after spending time with him in spring training, Francona had complete confidence in Kipnis’ ability to reverse his fortunes with a little patience.
“Sometimes, guys [make adjustments], then they get confident and they get better,” Francona said. “That’s what happened to Kip. Now, he’s turning into one of the better players in the game.”
Batting out of a hole
Kipnis steadily worked out of the early slump by batting .265 with 23 RBI from April 29 through June 4.
And then he surprised everyone when he turned it up a few more notches over the next month (from June 5 to July 3), leading all qualified major-league batters in batting average (.438), on-base percentage (.531), slugging percentage (.753) and OPS (1.284).
Kipnis’ red-hot streak earned him two American League Player of the Week honors en route to becoming the first Indians player to be named the AL Player of the Month in four years, since former right fielder Shin-Soo Choo claimed the honor in September 2008.
During June, it seemed Kipnis had at least one big hit each game, batting .419 with 12 doubles, one triple, four home runs and 25 RBI. He also scored 17 runs, stole nine bases and drew 30 walks in 27 games as the Tribe recovered from a losing slump and leapt back into first place briefly ahead of the Detroit Tigers.
“Thus far, he’s been the best player on the team,” center fielder Michael Bourn said. “He started off a little slow, like many guys do. But then I think he settled down and realized he knows how to play baseball. He knows he’s athletic, he knows he can play second base and he knows he can hit, because he did it last year. He basically has all five tools, and once he settled into himself, it showed.”
Kipnis got to his level. And once he did, all of baseball took notice.
He learned Saturday that he would be playing in his first major-league All-Star Game on July 16 at Citi Field in New York.
“I definitely didn’t take the smoothest path to get to [the All-Star Game],” Kipnis, 26, said with a laugh. “I kind of dug myself a hole early on, but we worked our way back and we stuck with it.
“That’s a compliment to [Francona] and the guys in this locker room. I have confidence and faith in myself, but without these guys supporting me and picking me up, I don’t think I’d have gotten to this point. Their support played a big part in my turnaround.”
Saturday turned out to be a bittersweet day for Kipnis. His career-best 16-game hitting streak was snapped in a disappointing 0-for-4 effort via two groundouts and strikeouts, as the Indians endured a second consecutive blowout loss to the Tigers.
In addition to the hitting streak, the rare rough day at the plate also put an end to his 36-game on-base streak (the longest streak for an Indians player since former catcher Victor Martinez reached safely in 45 games from Sept. 17, 2005 through May 6, 2006).
“The last two days I’ve kind of gone back to the old slumping Kipnis, where I ground out to the right side and try to pull the ball,” he said. “It’s when I trust my hands, see the ball and go the other way with it that I’m at my best. I’ve realized that I don’t have to get started as early as I think I do to hit the ball. If I just let it travel and stay in the zone, I’m going to have some success.”
It sounds like a simple thing, but that’s exactly what Kipnis did to turn a season-beginning slump into one of the best stretches of his career.
“There’s no big change that I made to my swing,” he said. “I haven’t changed my hands or stance or anything like that. It’s my mental approach, it’s confidence, it’s pitch recognition, seeing the ball better and really, just learning myself as a hitter.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/sports.abj.