By Byron Kline and Photos By Jennifer Stewart / Arizona DiamondBacks.
Center fielder A.J. Pollock was on the cusp of a breakout season last year for the Arizona Diamondbacks before being inadvertently hit by a pitch, which sidelined him for three months. Now, he’s back to lead the new look D-backs back into the National League West race and prove that he’s ready to take the next step towards becoming one of the team’s young, new leaders.
Any athlete will tell you that injuries are just part of the game. However, that doesn’t make them any easier to accept, especially when you’re a third-year player aggressively trying to make a name for yourself in the big leagues. But that’s the situation A.J. Pollock found himself in last year when a broken hand sidelined the young talent for three months, derailing what had been a promising start to the 2014 season, if not for the Diamondbacks, at least for Pollock.
Pollock started at Notre Dame where after three sea- sons with the Fighting Irish he was selected 17th overall in the first round of the 2009 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He spent the first few years of his professional career in the Arizona farm system before making his Major League debut in April of 2012.
After being used mostly as a fourth outfielder in 2012, Pollock used an impressive Spring Training showing to become the team’s starting center fielder in 2013, appearing in 137 games while batting.269 with eight home runs, 28 doubles and 38 RBI.
He developed a reputation as a sure-handed defensive outfielder but lacked some of the consistency and pop for a top-of-the-order hitter, so Pollock once again spent his off-season fine tuning the mechanics of his game and his approach at the plate.
“I talked to a lot of guys,” said Pollock, “It’s kind of about hearing how other guys do it and kind of picking their brain to see what worked for them. You go through all the different batting stances and types of things. There’s not one way to do things.
“I think it’s just about listening, taking it in and if it works for you, try it and if it doesn’t, move on. I just think with this game, you’ve always got to be open-minded and ready to listen to guys who have had a lot of success.”
Pollock listened and the proof was in his production. Through the first 51 games of the 2014 season, Pollock played at a near All-Star level, batting .316 with six home runs, 16 doubles, 15 RBI and 28 runs scored. While the Diamondbacks struggled to find wins, Pollock served as one of the team’s few bright spots and a reason for future optimism.
“I just think things started to come together,” he said. “You get a little experience and you get your rou- tines. I kind of learned the big league game a little bet- ter. I think it’s just a process for anyone coming up. You go through the struggles, how you do your scouting before a game, how you kind of prepare and have your own plan. You just get smarter with more experience. I think things just started to happen for me.”
Unfortunately, the good vibes were short lived for the center fielder as Pollock’s season was cut short after being struck by a Johnny Cueto fastball, sending him to the disabled list for three months with a broken right hand.
“It was tough,” Pollock recalled. “I think the one thing is, it’s baseball. A lot of guys get hit. For me, it was just about moving on past it, getting over it, and playing games after it. Obviously it was very frustrating but when you get hit, everything is out of your control. You’ve just got to work on getting back, men- tally and physically.
“There’s a mental barrier you have to break getting back at it and for me, I actually got hit again in my third at-bat during my rehab stint, so automatically I’m thinking, ‘What is going on here?’ You’d like to think you’ll never get hit there again and yet I came in with the Arizona rookie ball team and got hit so it put a little negative thought in my mind that I had to get past.”
AZSAL FAST FACTS
• Says his favorite National League
roadtrip is to Chicago’s Wrigley Field
• Played his first stint of minor league baseball with the Southbend Silverhawks after leaving Notre Dame…in Southbend, IN
• Proposed to his wife last year during team’s trip to Australia to start the season
• Has never been in the swimming pool at Chase Field and says he never will now after the infamous L.A. Dodgers celebration two seasons ago
• Favorite vacation spot: Australia
• Most memorable moment at Notre Dame: Meeting his wife
But Pollock persevered. He rejoined the Diamondbacks in September and played in the team’s final 23 games, hitting .269. While it might have been a far cry from where he had been prior to the injury, it was a step in the right direction from one of the team’s young, bright stars and team leaders.
The Diamondbacks finished the 2014 season with a 64-98 record and in last place in the ultra-competitive NL West division. Both general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson were relieved of their duties as the team ushered in, not only a new front office staff, but a number of new players over the winter to help usher in a new era for the team in Sedona red, one that Pollock is sure to be a contributing part of moving forward.
“I’ve been with the Diamondbacks for a while,” he said. “There are only a few of us left that have been here for the last couple of years. I want to be a good teammate. I want to be a leader and do my part and it’s been fun. It’s been fun getting to know the new guys. For the most part, we’ve got pretty much a completely new team. I’m getting to know them and how they operate and play the game.”
“It’s a completely different year. We’ve got new people running the show here. We’ve got a lot of different players. I guess right now we’re just focusing on this year. We’ve got a really good mindset. We’ve gotten beat up a little bit and have responded really well. I think that’s a good testament to a team and I think we still haven’t hit our stride yet, which is cool.”