PEORIA, Ariz. – It’s time for Bryan LaHair to move on after the most memorable year of his professional baseball life, although it’s not easy.
How can a guy not think about his first day in the big leagues, when the Seattle Mariners called him up July 18? Or his first career hit, a single July 22 when he drove a pitch from Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka into right field?
There was the first home run, July 28 at Texas off the Rangers’ Scott Feldman. And the best game he played, July 29 when he went 3 for 4, homered and scored three times at Texas.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” LaHair said last week before a workout at the Mariners’ spring training complex. “I got my first hit and I got my first home run. But it’s all in the past now. It’s good for me to move on.”
The question concerning the 26-year-old LaHair is whether the Mariners will move on with or without him in 2009. He hit only three home runs in 136 at-bats and the Mariners, not convinced that LaHair is the answer at first base, signed Russell Branyan early this off-season.
Renowned for his powerful left-handed stroke in the minor leagues, where he hit 73 home runs in 640 at-bats after the Mariners drafted him in 2002, LaHair had a chance to show it when the M’s called him up in July.
It wasn’t exactly a soft landing for LaHair.
His callup had been expected since before the All-Star break when the free-falling Mariners looked toward their top minor league prospects. Because he would replace Richie Sexson, there was anticipation – if not sheer expectation – for LaHair to display his power.
He did with home runs in those back-to-back games at Texas on July 28-29, but then it disappeared. LaHair didn’t hit another until Sept. 20 at Oakland, and during the 33-game span without a homer, he rarely showed even warning-track power.
There may be a good reason, other than the challenge of big-league pitching.
LaHair said he’d been dealing with back problems during the season. It was significant enough that the Mariners scrapped plans to send him to Mexico for winter ball, instead keeping him in Peoria to strengthen the core muscles that will help his back.
“I had some problems with my back, a lot of soreness and stuff,” he said. “I’m working on my core a lot. That’s my main focus this off-season, that and spending time in the cage getting my swing ready.”
One keenly interested observer this off-season is Terry Pollreisz, who was LaHair’s hitting coach during the 2006 and 2007 seasons at Triple-A Tacoma.
Pollreisz, manager this year at Class A Wisconsin, said nobody saw LaHair’s true hitting potential after he was called up.
“There’s a lot more in the tank,” he said.
Best of all, LaHair definitely knows he’s better than that, and he points to the final week of the season. He went 4 for 9 with one home run and three RBIs in the last four games.
“I can’t say I was satisfied. But I took out of it what I could – the experience of the first chance,” he said. “From what I hear, a lot of young players go up there and their first experience is like that, too. The last week of the season, though, something was starting to click for me.”