Hamilton shows speed, keen eye in leadoff spot

Center fielder bumped up to hit first as Cozart gets day off Saturday

Hamilton shows speed, keen eye in leadoff spot

CINCINNATI -- Billy Hamilton batted leadoff for the Reds in their 5-1 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday, his first time at the top of the order this season.

It's not a permanent change -- Hamilton moved up in the order to allow Zack Cozart to get a day off -- but the early returns on Hamilton's approach from the No. 9 spot in the lineup are promising. In the first inning of Saturday's game, he doubled and scored a run. He later beat out a possible double-play grounder back to the pitcher, keeping the seventh inning alive. Eugenio Suarez followed with a two-run home run.

"I knew if I could get down the line, we had guys coming up behind," said Hamilton. "By me running it out, it gave us a chance to get more runs. Geno is a great hitter, and for me to beat that out gave us another chance, and it was pretty big. We got some insurance runs on that home run he hit."

Hamilton picked up his first hit of the season in Friday night's 6-5 loss to the Pirates, slapping a single past third base to drive in a run in the sixth inning that gave the Reds a 4-2 lead. He followed that with his first stolen base of the season. He had taken his second walk of the season to enable the Reds to load the bases in the fourth inning.

Suarez's two-run homer

"Strike-zone command is so important. You can only walk if they throw four balls and you take them all," said manager Bryan Price. "Defining your strike zone and being confident enough to hit down strike one or down strike two, those are important parts to developing as a player. As [Hamilton] gets more confident in feeling like he doesn't need to get the ball in play early ... he can go deeper in the at-bats. The walks will increase."

Hamilton's on-base percentage dipped from .292 in 2014 to .274 this past season. He had surgery on his right shoulder in September, and he got a later start than others this Spring Training as he continued his rehabilitation and recovery process.

"I feel real good at the plate," Hamilton said. "I'm not going up there without a clue. I have a clue at what I want to do and what pitches I want to hit. Just this first week, I've been into 3-2 counts a whole bunch. Maybe more this year than I was all of last year."

Process and progress will be key terms when it comes to Hamilton in 2016.

"I think [Hamilton has] got a good eye. The key for him is when he gets a good pitch to hit, a hard line drive or ground ball, not so many balls in the air, and to lay off some of those pitcher pitches," said Price. "Don't feel compelled to swing at those pitches early, and those are the pitches you fight with two strikes. I think he's doing a better job of that."

Around the horn:
J.J. Hoover has Price's confidence, despite giving up a grand slam to Starling Marte in the eighth inning Friday night that turned a 5-2 Reds lead into a 6-5 loss.

"I think J.J. is the most prepared out of our group to close at this time," said Price. "He's earned that right with the performance he had last year and in 2012, 2013. I'm not compelled right now to see who else could do that job."

• If you didn't know Cozart was coming off major knee surgery last June, it would be hard to tell by his defense. He made a dive to tag out Marte at third base Friday night that got the Reds out of an inning.

"I just think we're seeing a guy who takes a lot of pride in his defense and loves to play," said Price.

Kevin Goheen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.