Blalock quietly among the best

Blalock quietly among the best

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Slick, Tex and Hammer, at least superficially, appear inseparable, lockering next to each other in the Rangers' Spring Training clubhouse, stacked upon each other in the lineup and inexorably linked together as the symbols of the Rangers' four-year-old youth movement.

They like trios in Texas, whether it's Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin on the Super Bowl Cowboys or Steve Nash, Michael Finley and Dirk Nowitski on the NBA Mavericks.

Michael "Slick" Young, Mark "Tex" Teixeira and Hank "Hammer" Blalock have seemed to be just that for the Rangers the past three years, and it appears that the only two things that could break them up are Josh Beckett and the World Baseball Classic.

But the Marlins decided back in November they would rather send Beckett to the Red Sox than send him and third baseman Mike Lowell to Texas in a deal for Blalock.

So Blalock stayed in Texas, but now he's in the Rangers training camp while Young and Teixeira played for the United States in the World Baseball Classic.

"I'm sure they are enjoying themselves," Blalock said, perhaps not factoring into the equation that Young has a slightly strained calf muscle and Teixeira didn't have a hit.

But the United States played into the second round before being eliminated by Mexico on Thursday, and Blalock remained on the outside while Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones played third base for Team USA.

Blalock, perhaps naively, didn't even apply for a spot on the team.

"I just figured that if they wanted me to play third, they would have asked," Blalock said.

The United States did not. Rodriguez was the one who was given the full-court press when he couldn't decide if he wanted to play for the United States or the Dominican Republic. Blalock did not get a phone call.

"Any time there's a select team or an All-Star team, I always want to be good enough," Blalock said. "I know I'm good enough to be there. That would be awesome to be the United States third baseman, but Alex and Chipper are two Hall of Famers. You have to wait your turn."

Blalock's turn seemed to be coming when he was a two-time All-Star in 2003-04 and hit a game-winning home run off Dodgers reliever Eric Gagne in the 2003 All-Star Game.

He hit .300 with 29 home runs and 90 RBIs in 2003 and .276 with 32 home runs and 110 RBIs in 2004. But, instead of progressing further in 2005, he hit .263 with 25 homer runs and 92 RBIs.

That was perceived as an "off year" for him and perhaps why there was no clamor to get him on Team USA.

"I think it's a compliment when I hit 25 homers and 92 RBIs and people say I had a bad year," Blalock said. "That's flattery if people think that's a bad year. I know what's expected and what I'm capable of."

Statistics are what people make of them and it's common knowledge that Blalock hit .196 against left-handers last year as opposed to .291 against right-handers, .297 at home as opposed to .231 on the road and .285 before the All-Star break as opposed to .236 after the break.

But he also hit .282 against left-handers in 2004 and .273 against right-handers, so there are no simplistic answers.

What seems evident is that when Blalock is "locked in" against anybody, he is as good as there is at his position, and it may be that the Rangers falling out of contention last year may be the answer to his decline in numbers.

"I don't want to answer that question because that would be an excuse," Blalock said.

Still, this is a guy who hit .343 with runners in scoring position when the Rangers won 89 games in 2004, as well as .353 with runners in scoring position and two out and .319 with runners on base. He hit .243 with the bases empty.

Even in 2005, the "down" year for him, he hit .278 with runners in scoring position, .299 with runners in scoring position and two out, .285 with runners on base and just .242 with the bases empty.

This is illuminating: Over the past three years he has more game-winning RBIs and more go-ahead RBIs than anybody on the Rangers.

Also, in the ultimate "lock it in" situation, Blalock is a .410 hitter with the bases loaded over the past three years.

Now measure him over the past three years in clutch situations against Rodriguez and Jones, the Team USA third basemen.

During that time, Blalock has hit .298 with runners in scoring position, .286 with runners in scoring position and two out and .303 with runners on base.

Rodriguez has hit .273 with runners in scoring position, .270 with runners in scoring position and two out and .292 with runners on base. Jones has batted .297 with runners in scoring position, .292 with runners in scoring position and two out and .294 with runners on base.

The numbers suggest that when Blalock is "locked in" in crucial situations, he's right up there with the best of them.

"Every player goes through times when he's playing the game where he really feels locked in, when he can't make an error on the field and, no matter who is on the mound, they can't get him out," Blalock said. "Look at a guy like Barry Bonds. He can do it for a whole season. That's why he's so great."

The Rangers' goal is to get Blalock "locked in" for a greater period of time.

"Hank is a baseball player," Rangers manager Buck Showalter said. "He loves to play baseball. He's a fan of baseball, the inner part of the game. He likes what he does and wants to do it well. He's 25 years old. Whatever Hank is going to be, he's going to reach it."

An instructive point was made during a "B" game against the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday. In Blalock's first at-bat against Royals right-hander Adam Benerno, Blalock went the other way and drove a ball to deep left-center.

"That's beautiful," Showalter said, watching from the side. "I don't care if it gets caught. That's a great at-bat."

The ball was caught. But it was not a strikeout. Blalock struck out 97 times over 567 at-bats in his first full season in the Majors in 2003. He also hit .300.

In 2004, he struck out 149 times in 624 at-bats and 132 times in 647 at-bats in 2005. The extra at-bats show that Blalock was used more against left-handers than in 2003.

But the increase in strikeouts shows how much more Blalock became obsessed with crushing the ball to deep right than he did in using the entire field.

Remember, this is a guy who hit .324 in the Minor Leagues and that was the reputation that he carried when he showed up to big-league camp for the first time in Port Charlotte, Fla., in 2002.

The Rangers expected Rusty Greer, a guy who hit for average and some power, rather than Dean Palmer, a pure power hitter.

"I talked to guys who were there in Port Charlotte that first year," Showalter said. "He put on a clinic in Spring Training, spraying the ball all over the ballpark. I've seen that, too ... at times."

This spring, Blalock is hitting .333 (6-for-18) with six walks and just one strikeout.

"So far so good," Showalter said.

Blalock knows what's expected of him and what he expects of himself. He doesn't need any anecdotal or statistical evidence to reinforce that.

"I don't ever have any extra motivation," Blalock said. "I have high expectations for myself. I don't need anything from the outside or from the past to drive me.

"As a team player, I'm sick of finishing third or fourth place every year. On a personal level, I consider the last three years to be a notch below All-Star caliber. I feel I'm capable of doing better things than in the past. It would be nice if it would be this year."

The Rangers look for that in 2006 and it may someday lead to Blalock being the starting third baseman on Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.