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Rays' retooled catcher Navarro hammering away plate

ST. PETERSBURG — There are, apparently, at least three specific reasons why the Rays' Dioner Navarro has unexpectedly turned into a modern-day Roy Campanella, sporting a .365 average that makes him the hottest hitter among all major-league catchers.

He changed his bat.

He changed his stance.

And he changed pretty much his entire attitude and approach.

"It's unreal," hitting coach Steve Henderson said. "Everything's going great for him."

As much of a surprise as Navarro has been the first eight weeks this season, his success story began at last year's All-Star break.

With a .177 average (one homer and 13 RBIs) and his starting job in jeopardy, Navarro, the way he tells it, simply made himself a better hitter. And he has been hitting ever since, with a .313 average in 84 games, second over that span to only the Yankees' Jorge Posada among starting big-league catchers, plus nine homers and 47 RBIs.

"It was like my switch was off the whole first half (last season) and I turned it back on in the second half," Navarro said. "I'm just trying to keep it simple, hit the ball the other way and shoot the gaps. And it's been working pretty good for me, obviously.

"The way I see it, everything started last year. My struggles through the first half, it (stunk) that it happened, but I was kind of glad it happened because it made me stronger, made me realize some things. And I found out so much stuff about myself last year that it was unbelievable."

Some was deep-thinking, personal stuff about his mental approach. Others more straightforward.

The first day back from the break, seeking something to break his slump, he picked up one of then-teammate Greg Norton's bats and took a few swings. It had a smaller barrel and a thicker handle than he normally used, and it felt horrible, but he was hitting bullets and bombs.

Navarro just about wore one out, stole a couple of more from the bat rack, then eventually ordered his own batch of black 34-inch, 31½-ounce Rawlings model No. 809B.

"I don't think I'll ever go back to anything else now," he said.

(Technically, that would be the second major contribution Norton, now with Atlanta, made to the Rays via subtraction: It was his late spring 2007 knee injury that gave Carlos Pena a chance to make the roster.)

With the new bat, Navarro, a 24-year-old switch-hitter, also started using a new stance, moving his hands a few inches farther away from his body.

And then there was his approach. Physically, he started hitting the ball more up the middle and to the opposite field. Plus, he's taking pitches, keeping the ball on a line and on the ground more, even dropping bunts.

Philosophically, he stopped focusing on what he did at the plate and concentrated more on what he did behind it, where his improved game-calling, pitch-blocking and overall play earned praise not only from manager Joe Maddon but crusty veteran closer Troy Percival, who raves about his work and compares him to former Angels teammate Bengie Molina.

Which, it turned out, made Navarro a better hitter.

"I've told you all along I think he's a good hitter," Maddon said. "This is what I saw from the very beginning with this guy. He was not in good shape last year, he got hurt, he came back and he was pressing, hitting too many fly balls. This whole thing became a nasty spiral and you want to get out of it, and he eventually did."

Change, you can say, did him good.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Hit men

The top hitting catchers in the majors (through Wednesday's games):

Player, team Avg. HR RBI

Dioner Navarro, Rays .365 1 16

Ryan Doumit, Pirates .350 5 15

Joe Mauer, Twins .336 0 19

Brian McCann, Braves .331 8 31

Geovany Soto, Cubs .314 9 34

Minimum 100 plate appearances; Source: Stats Inc.

Half-and-half

Dioner Navarro came to the Rays in June 2006 but has been a different hitter starting with last year's All-Star break. A look at his improvement:

G Avg. HR RBI

Pre-2007 ASB 119 .209 5 33

Post-2007 ASB 84 .313 9 47

Rays' retooled catcher Navarro hammering away plate 05/23/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2008 12:24pm]
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