DETROIT -- There was a play in Boston on Wednesday night that pretty much sums up the Josh Hamilton experience. With a runner on third and two outs in the third, Hamilton sent a bouncer deep in the hole near the second-base bag. And as the rangy Dustin Pedroia snagged it and rifled it to first, Hamilton, against his better judgment, slid headfirst into the bag to preserve the RBI single. "He smelled a hit," manager Ron Washington said a day later. "When Josh smells a hit, that's what he does."
And he does it with his general manager cringing at the sight. "I hate that," said Jon Daniels, remembering too well the broken arm Hamilton suffered when he slid headfirst into home plate here at Comerica Park a year ago. "I want to strangle him when I see that. I told him that, too. The thing is, if he runs through the bag there, he's safe. I understand if somebody's going to apply a tag, but I'm holding my breath that he comes through that with no broken fingers." And that's how it is when you watch Hamilton. The guy can impact a ballgame in ways that few others can, as evidenced by the monstrous, Most Valuable Player-type numbers he's posted in these opening weeks of the 2012 season for a Rangers team that's been on a tear. But Hamilton is also so willing to sacrifice his body to make that impact that he opens himself up to scrutiny about his long-term durability. "It's something that just kind of happens when I'm out there," Hamilton said. "There are points in time where I have time to think through things and there are times when I don't. You can't really think through diving headfirst into first base ... It's all a learning process." Contract negotiations are a process, too. And though Daniels did not wish to discuss the status of talks between the Rangers and Mike Moye, Hamilton's agent, there has reportedly been preliminary dialogue between the two sides in this early stage of the season. Hamilton does not expect to be distracted by the talks, and his play proves it. "I trust my agent so much -- not just as my agent but also as my spiritual mentor and as somebody who cares for me and my family," Hamilton said. "I trust him to handle it until it's time to talk about something. If they're talking right now, I don't know anything about it." Eligible to be a free agent at season's end, Hamilton had initially set the beginning of Spring Training as a deadline to get a deal done, but both sides opted to table the discussion after Hamilton's alcohol relapse in late January. Hamilton, by all accounts, is in a great state of mind now, though naturally, the pull and the pain of addiction will always be a subplot to his story. It is, however, Hamilton's injury history (even his MVP season in 2010 was a five-month affair because of the fractured ribs he suffered crashing into the outfield wall), and the worry that his nearly 31-year-old body is too brittle to be trusted, that could be far bigger obstacles to a long-term contract than any fears of another lapse in his substance abuse recovery. The Rangers are likely to insist on a clause in any contract that would offer them at least some protection against major injury. But Hamilton has that bat and the gifted ability to make magic with it. And that's impossible to ignore, especially when he's doing things like he's done thus far this season. Look at the numbers: a .426 average, 1.208 OPS, five homers, three doubles, 13 runs scored and 12 RBIs. He even got around to drawing his first walk Wednesday ("I was pretty proud of that," he joked), and he drew two more Thursday night. Hey, it's only 54 at-bats across 13 games -- a small sample, as we so often say. But what a sample. And what a way to drive up your asking price. "What you're seeing, I'm not surprised," Washington said. "We've seen him do it before. I've seen him score twice from second base on infield singles." Washington's also seen him hit some gargantuan blasts -- like the 469-foot poke deep into the right-field stands at Fenway the other night. That shot might as well serve as the centerpiece of Hamilton's April masterpiece. "Some days, I feel good, some days, I don't feel good," Hamilton said. "To be honest with you, I'm finding holes. I've had some good swings, some bad swings. But the biggest thing you've got to watch out for is when you're getting results. You think you can hit everything, and you start expanding your zone so much that it gets kind of ridiculous. So that's the thing I'm kind of watching out for right now." And though you might not know it from his reckless style of play, Hamilton is watching out for his body, too. While recovering from sports hernia surgery, he reacquainted himself with Pilates over the winter, because he felt like it helped him before the 2008 season, when he played in a career-high 156 games. "I wanted to tighten everything up and feel strong," he said. "As you play and have injuries, you learn your body and what your body needs to perform to the best it can perform on a daily basis. So it's not about looking at the whole 162 games, it's about looking at one game at a time, and then those games start piling up on each other. I mean, anybody can get overwhelmed looking at 162 games." Hamilton won't play all 162 this year. But he can help this Rangers team and, of course, his contractual case by coming as close to that tally as he can. "We need him," said Washington, whose club improved to 11-2 with Thursday night's win over the Tigers. "The season we've had so far this year, we need Hamilton doing all that he's done." Well, with the exception of the headfirst slides into first base.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.