Niekro opening eyes with spring play

Niekro opening eyes with spring play

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There's been some big changes for Giants first baseman Lance Niekro this spring -- in body, in confidence, in swing and in power.

Bulked up by some 15 pounds over the offseason -- all muscle -- the 27-year-old Niekro has impressed coaches with a dynamic work ethic, a .400 batting average over his first 14 Cactus League games, a team-leading 11 RBIs and what backup first sacker Mark Sweeney calls an unmistakable presence.

"He's a hard worker and he's got that quiet confidence that's much needed," said Sweeney, a 12-year veteran. "He's been around the game a long time, growing up with his dad and uncle [Major League pitchers Joe and Phil Niekro], but sometimes you have to get your feet wet in this game and continue to grow and grow."

Niekro's experiences as a rookie in 2005 were exactly that, a mix of batting turmoil -- facing premier pitchers on a consistent basis and struggling through an extended funk after initial success -- but getting invaluable playing time and learning the nuances of first base from none other than Gold Glover J.T. Snow.

This should be Niekro's breakout year.

"It's going well, but I have to keep working hard during practices and take that out into the game with me," said Niekro, hitting .424 over his last 12 games. "I'm trying to be more selective and find a pitch in the zone."

It's working, but Niekro, whose Minor League career has been fraught with injuries -- right shoulder surgery, fractured radius in left hand, high ankle sprain -- has missed two games with a right shin splint, although it's not considered serious.

"He's been battling it for a week to 10 days," said trainer Stan Conte. "We don't anticipate it being a big issue. If this was the regular season you wouldn't even know about it. With an off-day and everything, we could afford to give him some rest."

Still, Niekro also had leg problems last season, and the Giants are hoping to see a full season from the infielder.

"We just have to keep him on the field," said Sweeney. "Injuries are a part of it. I've been around a lot of guys who are very good players, but not being on the field is tough. It's weird -- some guys are snakebit about that but hopefully this is one of those years he stays on the field."

If Niekro can stay whole, watch out.

He has altered his stance this spring, his weight centered, and hitting coach Joe Lefebvre says the strong Niekro is terrifying pitchers now, not being fooled by we-know-your-weak-spot offerings.

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"One of his problems was he had too much weight on his back foot and he couldn't put his front foot down in time and he was collapsing," said Lefebvre. "Now he's staying over the ball better, and it's a much quicker path to the ball with a lot of power."

Niekro's been a hitting star since winning the league batting title in 2000 with Class A Salem-Keizer (.362), and he had his best season at Triple-A Fresno in 2004 with a .298 average, 12 homers and 47 RBIs.

He hit .297 and 10 homers before the All-Star break in 2005, but those leg problems cut his playing time, then his average took a .186 tailspin the second half. Overall, he hit .324 vs. left-handed pitchers and .206 vs. righties.

Lefebvre said he wasn't surprised at Niekro's early success, but was a bit shocked the rookie couldn't extricate himself from the slump.

"We expected a lot and he put pressure on himself also," said the coach. "At the end of the day, he didn't finish up the way he wanted but he showed a lot of promise. He's stronger now and that's given him confidence. When you're weaker you have a tendency to lose your mechanics quickly."

Niekro admitted he tried desperately to get his swing back, but it didn't happen.

"Last year it wasn't that I couldn't hit [right-handers], I was just in a funk," said Niekro. "Hitting is hard, and it never went through my mind about lefties or righties. There were a couple of pitches they were getting me out on, even lefties, and once they found that spot they started attacking me."

Now Niekro is counterattacking. He's hit safely in 10 of his last 12 games, going 14-for-33 (.424) with two doubles, a triple and homer.

And if the bigger-in-multiple-ways Niekro can stay healthy, he's hoping that trend will continue through the regular season.

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