ATLANTA -- An Opening Day cleanup hitter less than a week ago, Randal Grichuk has now been benched twice in four games as the Cardinals try to ride the hot bat of Jeremy Hazelbaker and give Grichuk a chance to get out of his own head.
The 24-year-old center fielder has been unable to carry over any momentum from Spring Training, during which he hit .304 with eight extra-base hits. Entering Saturday, Grichuk had struck out a Major League-most eight times amid a 1-for-14 season start.
"I just have to trust my abilities and let it fly," Grichuk said. "I feel like when I was going good last year, I wasn't thinking too much. I was just trusting it. Right now, that's definitely not what I'm doing. It gets into your head a little bit more and you panic because it's the start of the year."
Replaced by Hazelbaker in Saturday's lineup, Grichuk used the day off to spend extra time in the batting cage. He hit with Stephen Piscotty when the two arrived at Turner Field and then returned to the cages for a two-on-one session with hitting coaches John Mabry and Derrick May. By the end of it all, Grichuk estimated he had taken four to five times more swings than he normally would before a game.
"I feel like when you're in your head, you kind of have to let it relax and get out and work," Grichuk said. "It was good. I had a chance to get in there and let it loose."
Though the sample size remains tiny, pitch recognition has been an issue for Grichuk thus far. He has swung at 24 pitches in the team's first four games and missed 11 of them. Of the 27 fastballs thrown to him, Grichuk has a whiff rate of 38 percent. That percentage jumps to 57 with breaking balls, of which he's seen 19.
In contrast, Grichuk had significantly lower whiff rates on fastballs (28 percent) and breaking pitches (38 percentage) in 2015.
"I can understand where he sees it's a mental thing right now," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "I just see it as he is having trouble picking up the ball. I think he's got an idea of what he wants to do up there. There's just something that he's not recognizing to allow him to lay off bad pitches. It'll come. It happens to everybody, every season. It's just a matter of how quickly he can get out of it."
Matheny might have been more inclined to let Grichuk work out of the funk in game action, as he has with others, had he not had another center fielder off to a quick start. Hazelbaker had three hits, including a pair of homers, in his first six career at-bats.
"Jeremy deserves an opportunity to keep playing," Matheny said. "[Grichuk] will get it figured out, and then he'll go. Right now, we have to win, and in the meanwhile, we hope that the work [Grichuk] is doing is the proper work to get him back to where he needs to be."