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Jordan Schafer has speed, bats leadoff and plays center field. If you put those three together, he probably fills the team’s greatest need – or at least ranks a close second to an oracle who can answer pesky questions like, “Should we really give this $23 million contract to a pitcher from Japan?”
For the past three years, there has been reason to wonder about Schafer. Given he carried a .211 batting average into Thursday’s game against the New York Mets, a case could be made there was still reason to wonder.
After taking the plunge from a potential organizational centerpiece to a guy known for a 50-game suspension, injuries and maybe being just a little too cocky, he’s turning into a major league player — an impact one. He is saying and doing the right things. You hear about the work ethic, the humility. He showed some toughness after taking a foul ball off the face the other day and then coming back. He slides on the base paths, dives in the outfield.
We have a natural affinity for players who get their uniform dirty. Also for guys who get five hits in a game. Schafer went 5-for-6 with three runs scored in the Braves’ 9-8, 10-inning win over the Mets. That raised his average 45 points (to .256), and equally important raised his stature in the organization.
“He’s usually showing us that he’s a prototypical leadoff hitter,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
“I think the kid’s been great since he’s come up,” Chipper Jones said. “I knew he had turned the corner when he came up to me in spring training and said, ‘What do I need to do better? What do I need to do to make this team?’ It told me that he realized he had been trying to do everything on his own, his own way, and it wasn’t good enough. He’s willing to be counseled now.”
The Braves are going to be facing a decision soon on what to do with Schafer. At this point, the answer should be obvious: keep him.
Schafer, who has been starting in center for the injured Nate McLouth, singled in each of his first four at-bats (scoring on the first three). In the 10th, following a two-out double by Diory Hernandez, Schafer kept the inning alive with an infield single when Mets first baseman Daniel Murphy failed to backhand his ground ball. Moments later, with Jason Heyward up, D.J Carrasco committed a balk, bringing Hernandez home with the winning run.
Five hits, three runs, a win — these are the nights Schafer dreams of.
“My whole objective is to get on base, no matter [how] that is,” he said. “If I can get on base five times, I figured we’ve got a good chance to win.”
Schafer brings more speed – leading the team with seven stolen bases in only 20 games – and plays better defense than McLouth. He has a stronger arm. But when Martin Prado returns from a staph infection, the Braves will have one too many outfielders (add Jason Heyward and Joe Mather) and will have to make a roster decision.
“I just want to show them I can play here and contribute and help this team win,” Schafer said. “But they have to do what they think is best.”
Words don’t clinch roster spots, but they help.
Schafer missed so much time following wrist surgery that he lost strength, timing and confidence. All of those things started to come back at Triple-A Gwinnett.
He has been carrying around a copy of a story on C.C. Sabathia, only because of this quote by the pitcher: “Once you prove to yourself what you’re capable of, you build confidence.” He also has a tattoo of a Confucius quote on his left arm: “Our greatest glory is not in rising but in the rising after the fall.”
“I got that one during the suspension,” he said. “It took a while to come back from that [emotionally]. It took a while before it was even fun again in the field.” (The 2008 suspension was for violating baseball’s substance-abuse policy, though he never tested positive and disputed the league’s decision.)
Schafer’s biggest obstacle has been fighting the urge to take a big swing and make up for three years of frustration in one at-bat.
“That’s what got me in trouble before,” he said.
Jones believes Schafer is “still learning” how to be an impact leadoff hitter, how to “hit line drives and ground balls up the middle and the other way so he can best utilize his legs. When he refines some things, he’s going to be a dynamic top of the lineup guy.”
He was just that Thursday. He may have seen Lawrenceville for the last time.
By Jeff Schultz