With NLDS homer, Uribe's comeback hits high point
After struggling for two years, veteran infielder proves to be leader on and off field
LOS ANGELES -- In 2011 and '12, Juan Uribe had the kind of offensive seasons that get hitting coaches dismissed. In fact, Jeff Pentland and successor Dave Hansen were dismissed while Uribe was making a run to be one of the Dodgers' worst free-agent signings ever.
The Dodgers gave Uribe a three-year, $21 million deal coming off his World Series heroics in 2010 with the Giants, but he lost the third-base job to Aaron Miles the first year and Luis Cruz the next.
But Uribe's clutch home run Monday night, which helped to send the Dodgers into the National League Championship Series, showed why he is one of the most amazing, and unknown, comeback stories of this season.
Uribe raised his average from last year's .191 to .278, his home runs from two to 12, his RBIs from 17 to 50. He hit three home runs in one game on Sept. 9 and homered in each of the last two playoff wins.
And Uribe's defense? He committed only five errors, was second in fielding percentage at his position in the NL, still has soft and quick hands, a powerful throwing arm and deceptive range considering his chunky body.
"I'm sure a lot of people see their guys and think they're Gold Gloves, but seeing this guy all the time, I don't know who's better," said manager Don Mattingly.
Cynics will say Uribe's reawakening just happened to coincide with upcoming free agency. He lost 20 pounds last winter and arrived at Spring Training knowing that Cruz was still the starter and he would be lucky to have a role on the far end of the bench. That's where Uribe sat the final five weeks of last season, allowed to take but one single at-bat, a true forgotten man.
"I can imagine how debilitating on a psyche it can be to be told at the highest level you're not good enough to play," said Brian Wilson, Uribe's teammate with the Giants and again in Los Angeles. "Uribe never gets down. He's always in good spirits and always plays the game hard. He's a good clubhouse person. He knows how to play the game on both offense and defense. He's been on two World Series teams. That's remarkable, and there's a reason for that. He knows what he's doing. He grinds it out."
Still, the Uribe of the previous two seasons presented an ultimate test for new hitting coaches Mark McGwire and John Valentin, the former coming in with a legendary reputation, the latter having familiarity with Uribe as a Minor League coach assisting in Major League Spring Training.
Valentin also had another angle to work with Uribe, having formerly been a powerful pull-hitting infielder.
"I was a pull hitter, he's a pull hitter," said Valentin. "I know how pitchers pitch to him. His approach was always the same. It's a pull approach. And the guy's not playing because of that. You make adjustments or you fail. I played at Fenway Park; all we did was pull. I had to adjust to stay in the league. When you've got two players of the same type, it's easier to get your message across."
The message that McGwire and Valentine pounded home to Uribe, as simple as it sounds, was to try to hit up the middle. Uribe had gotten so pull-crazy that his entire body was in motion as he swung wildly, inviting pitchers to keep fooling him with offspeed breaking balls away.
"You know, I work very hard in Spring Training and I work in the cage with Mark and John, and I work hard to think about up the middle," said Uribe. "It's been a lot of work, but I could see even in Spring Training that it was working for me. I started hitting the ball harder and hitting to all fields. And I kept working all season on that. You know, all I want to do is help my team win. Last year was hard for me, but now I'm good."
Valentin never considered Uribe a lost cause.
"I saw what was in there," Valentin said. "I had to convince him to think middle out. When he started to see he was getting hits, he got convinced. But it took a while for him to believe. He still sometimes goes back to the old way. That's when I go to him and ask, 'What are you thinking?' He's been a fabulous student.
"He still has bad habits. But now, even when he pulls a home run [as he did Monday night], the way he used to hit, that same pitch goes foul. Or he misses it completely. So even if he isn't hitting up the middle, he's thinking [about trying to hit the ball] up the middle, and it makes the difference. I was persistent. I kept telling him, 'You do this, you're going to be back.'"
Uribe's back on the field, but in case you weren't listening to his joyous teammates during Monday night's revelry, he never left the club. And more this season than the past two, perhaps because of his improved play, he has taken on a more visible clubhouse role as mentor to young players like Yasiel Puig, as well as teasing jokester and domino opponent for Wilson.
"Regardless what Juan did the past two years, Juan has been, I think consensus, he's probably been the most liked teammate we have," Clayton Kershaw said.
"You never heard him complain about not being in the lineup, and even when Luis took his job, he returned the next Spring Training on a mission to become a Major League player again," said A.J. Ellis. "He earned the ultimate respect of everybody in here. You will never find anybody in here saying a negative thing about Juan as a teammate or a person.
"And I think Spring Training was huge for him. He showed he could still do it. All of us, we come to Spring Training and deep down you wonder, 'Can I still do this?' Then you get the first hit and, 'OK, it's still in there.'"
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.