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'I know I belong': Tigers' Christin Stewart eager to put rough rookie season in rearview

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Typically, Tigers left fielder Christin Stewart exudes tranquility. To say he has the countenance of a Tibetan monk is overstating it, but not by a lot. So to see him flustered and angst-ridden like he was at the end of spring training back in March was somewhat alarming.

Then again, getting just four hits in 30 plate appearances — spring training or not — in such a pivotal time in his career would test even a monk’s reticence. 

The Tigers' Christin Stewart

“It was kind of crazy,” he said. “Right when my bat started to heat up (he got two of his four hits in the game right before the shutdown), everything ended. I had a lot of time to reflect.”

Before he left Lakeland for his home in Nashville, though, Tigers hitting coach Joe Vavra pulled him aside.

“I just told him, ‘There are a few mechanical adjustments I’d like to see you make,’” Vavra said. “I’ve had relationships with players in the past who had similar batting mechanics and I thought there were a few simple changes he could make that could pay big dividends.

“And for the most part, he’s made some nice mechanical adjustments.”

Perhaps so. Stewart matched his Grapefruit League hit total in four at-bats Thursday, including a majestic, three-run home run deep into the seats in right field off reliever David McKay, leading Team Maybin to a 7-2 win over Team Miggy.

“He is a talented young man that’s going to have to figure it out and hopefully this is the start of a big career for him,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He can really hit and he doesn’t have to do too much defensively, just make the plays he’s supposed to make and get the ball to the cutoff man.

“The expectations are that this guy should be able to put the ball in the seats.”

Stewart hit 98 home runs over five minor-league seasons. But in his first full season with the Tigers (104 games) he hit 10 in 416 plate appearances with 103 strikeouts. That lack of production, coupled with his deficiencies on defense (range and arm strength), put Stewart very much on the bubble when the shutdown came.

“We talked about how he needed to get his footwork better in the outfield and really work on getting throws to the cutoff man, and he’s done some nice work,” Gardenhire said. “Now are we going to see the potential at the plate? The ball is in his court. It’s time for him to take off.

“He could be a very valuable piece for us, left-handed power guy.”

Vavra’s basic message to Stewart was to be less rigid at the plate, more athletic and trust your instincts.

“It just calmed him down,” Vavra said. “So he’s not so shouldery (in his swing), not pulling off the ball. His batting practices have been good. When he does start hooking a few balls, he’s learned how to stay inside it.”

Stewart used the break to clear his head. And once things opened up in Nashville, he was working out at a facility and taking live batting practice against the likes of big-leaguers Sonny Gray and Lance Lynn.

“During the break I was working on different things,” he said. “Just in my set-up, I started being more relaxed, not as stiff. That helped me stay through the ball better … Really just small adjustments, nothing major.

“At this point, my swing is my swing and I’m pretty comfortable how it feels right now. But half the battle is mental. I really try not to think about (mechanics) and just let my instincts take over.”

Three of his hits Thursday were into an extremely shifted defense (essentially three outfielders on the right side of the field), which he likely will face from every team all season. And two of the hits were against Tigers ace lefty Matthew Boyd.

“I’m just trying to hit the ball where it’s thrown,” he said. “Know your situations and what you are trying to do. It is possible for me to pull an outside pitch. I’m not worried about that. It’s just knowing the situation and trying to hit the ball hard.

“Not thinking about where you hit, just trying have hard contact every at-bat.”

He’s also worked extremely hard on his fitness. By committing to a regimen of agility drills and plyometrics, he’s leaner and more flexible than he was last season. It showed Thursday when he stretched a routine single to right into a double.

“He’s been moving a little better in the outfield, too,” Gardenhire said. “Obviously he came in here knowing this is a big one for him. He needs to get going here and start producing. He looks great, moving better and he’s got his swing going.

“That’s how you make an impression.”

Stewart isn’t accepting any outside pressure. He isn’t coming to the park every day looking over his shoulder thinking somebody is about to take his spot. A player who has known nothing but success until last season, that’s not how he’s wired.

“I know I belong,” he said. “I know my abilities. I know my strengths and I know what I can do. At the end of the day, all you can control is your actions and effort. I’m just giving it everything I got. I just have a hunger every time I am out there to do the best I can.

“I’m really focused and excited about this year.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky