It was nearly four years ago when Jeff Francoeur appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, holding a bat, flashing a Pepsodent smile, and suddenly looming so large (and borderline Utopian) one month into his major-league career that a two-word headline screamed: “The Natural.”
On Tuesday, the same Jeff Francoeur was coming off a .239 season. After going hitless against Colorado — though reaching base twice on an error and hit batter — he’s mired in a 5-for-41 slump to drop his season average to .242.
When reminded about the magazine cover just before batting practice, Francoeur laughed and said, “Yeah, I know. Screw ‘em.”
Know what? This may be progress.
Nobody ever has questioned his talent. The issues generally have been from the neck up. When he struggled early last season, he didn’t handle it well. When the Braves demoted him to the minors, he viewed it as slap instead of a needed escape. Eventually, with the help of a little off-season perspective and extensive work with Texas hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo, he acknowledged he was new to this whole failure thing and, well, must have not been blessed with the adjustment gene.
But this is different. He feels it. He says it. We’ll find out soon enough if he can prove it. He doesn’t have to be Roy Hobbs. He just can’t be the guy who lets his average drop 45 points in two weeks.
“I felt so good in spring training, and I got off to a great start,” said Francoeur, who was hitting .317 16 games into the season and .287 as recently as May 6. “What disappoints me is when I started not feeling good in the last two weeks, I abandoned what I worked on. I can’t do that. But the difference between last year and this year is I realize, ‘Hey, it’s two weeks. It’s only two weeks.’ ”
Yes, it’s only two weeks. But the Braves are not strong enough on offense to endure this. They’re surviving on their pitching. Their 157 runs through 37 games ranked 13th among 16 teams in the National League. Five starting outfielders have combined for only seven home runs (two by Francoeur). That’s not going to get it done.
The other part of this is expectations. When a pro athlete busts out of the box like Francoeur did in 2005 — 14 homers, 20 doubles, 45 RBI, .300 average in 70 games — and then follows it up with two pretty solid seasons, this kind of drop-off isn’t received well by the populace.
Francoeur said he can deal with that. But he’s angry at himself, and Jaramillo isn’t real happy, either.
How’s this for strange? Not only did Francoeur work with the hitting coach from another team in the winter, he took a phone call from Jaramillo on Monday night (after he went 0-for-3).
“Rudy called me last night and got on my [rear],” Francoeur said. “We spoke for a while. He had watched some tape and basically said, ‘All the work we’ve done, you’ve abandoned it.’ I knew it, but when he said it, it sunk in. You expect a drop off, but at the first sign [of trouble] I just went away from everything.”
Francoeur’s father, David, also was at Monday’s game and later gave his son an earful. Off-balance stance. Out front on the swing. Trying to pull pitches.
Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton thinks Francoeur will be fine. But he added: “Sometimes he gets to the point where his competitiveness takes over, instead of just standing back and going, ‘Wait a minute. I can’t get frustrated.’ ”
Turns out he’s not Hobbs. But he can deal with not being fantasy as long as this isn’t reality.