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Church feeling better about swing

Church feeling better about swing

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Nary a word beyond "good morning," and other similar pleasantries, had been exchanged between Ryan Church and a clubhouse visitor when the Mets right fielder blurted out three words: "I can hit," he said, with emphasis on the middle word.

No one had suggested he couldn't or wouldn't, but the papers and Web sites that present daily updates of players' batting stats, even in Spring Training, said he hadn't.

And Church sensed the .161 average he would carry into the Mets' Friday afternoon exhibition game against the Nationals appeared in flashing neon.

So there he was, first thing in the morning, speaking in defense of his offense.

The Mets expected Church to hit when they acquired him and Brian Schneider, and nothing they have seen since the Nov. 30 trade with the Nationals has suggested otherwise. The .152 average he carried after an 0-for-2 performance is no litmus test. He has had merely 33 at-bats. And the concussion he sustained March 1, and birth of his son two weeks later, certainly qualify as mitigating circumstances in any conversation about his seemingly stunted preparation for the regular season. He had hoped for a smoother spring.

Now, with 10 days remaining in the exhibition season, at least he has a smoother swing.

In the days since the March 14 birth of Mason Church, hitting coach Howard Johnson has made Mason's father his primary project. Johnson studied Church's stance and swing as much as he could, given the interruptions. Johnson believes he has corrected a flaw in Church's stance, and the solution will allow Church to realize his promise.

At Johnson's suggestion, Church has narrowed his stance about five inches. It remains greater than shoulder width, but something considerably narrower than Joe DiMaggio's. And more importantly, it is comfortable and beneficial for Church.

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"I waited until after his son was born, so he could have a clear mind," Johnson said. "It's just something I noticed since we got him, and after seeing him every day. I didn't notice too much last year. I think there is a lot more in him. He's untapped. He can be a better hitter."

Church isn't thinking in those longer-term thoughts.

"It's a process," he said after the Mets' 8-2 victory over his former team. "I just have to stick to it and not get frustrated and hope it starts to click when the games count.

"It feels better when I'm loading," Church says. "I feel more balanced. I keep my hands lower, too, so now I don't drop the barrel so much. And I'm using my legs more. ... When I do it right, it works well."

Church also explained that he stands more erect when he uses the modified stance, and that allows him to see pitches earlier, longer and more clearly.

"So with all that, you ought to bat at least .400, right?" is what his clubhouse visitor asked.

"Yeah," Church said. "I guess I better."

Church, 29 and in his fourth season in the big leagues, was a pitcher until his final year at the University of Nevada, so the argument can be made that he still is a relative novice. And he says "I've never really had a hitting coach. I basically have taught myself how to hit."

Former White Sox first baseman and Mets hitting coach Tom McCraw worked with Church with Expos. "But I was there for only 60 at-bats," he said.

Mitchell Page was the Nationals' batting coach going into 2007. Page was reassigned for reasons not made public and replaced by Lenny Harris.

"He was a great pinch-hitter, and I liked Lenny," Church said. "But the advice he gave me was, 'Be ready to hit.'

"HoJo's great. He broke down my stance, piece by piece. It's really helped to have another set of eyes. And he's helped my thinking.

"He said to me, 'You don't know how good you are. There's untapped potential. We're going to find it,' and 'Let it go.'"

Johnson also sees in Church what he has seen in so many other players whose careers have brought them to New York.

"This market, this ballclub, the expectations" is how the former Mets third baseman put it. "I experienced it.

"There are a lot of things going through his mind right now. But he'll figure it out. You can tell that he wants to earn."

It was several hours earlier that Chuch had sought out the batting coach at the batting cages. After two dozen swings, it was time for Angel Pagan to step in. But Church occupied Johnson for five more minutes, chasing him and questioning him. "He wants to get better, that's half the battle."

It can be the less challenging half.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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