Thome, Giambi readjust to roles after Interleague Play

Thome, Giambi readjust to roles after Interleague Play

Thome, Giambi readjust to roles after Interleague Play
Interleague Play has ended for another year. For the remainder of the regular season, National League teams won't have to figure out who to use as their designated hitter when they play an American League club on the road.

And frankly, this isn't a big deal for most of the guys who were pressed into service as DHs. Michael Morse (36 at-bats) can return to the outfield or first base for the Nationals. Alfonso Soriano (25 ABs) will go back to left field for the Cubs. Jason Kubel (24) for the Diamondbacks, J.D. Martinez (21) for the Astros; same principle.

Then there are Jim Thome of the Phillies and Jason Giambi of the Rockies.

Both are 41 years old, and both will be largely limited to pinch-hitting for the rest of the schedule unless they're traded. The Phils have decided not to play Thome in the field anymore because of the risk he might re-aggravate the back injury that landed him on the disabled list earlier this year. Todd Helton gets the vast majority of the starts at first base for Colorado, keeping Giambi on the bench.

It's not a stretch to suggest that nobody will be more influenced by losing the designated hitter.

The change figures to be particularly wrenching for Thome. As a stretch run pick-up for the Dodgers in 2009, he got 17 at bats in September, all as a pinch-hitter. He didn't have an extra base hit, and batted .235. Earlier this season, Thome was 0-for-10 as a pinch-hitter, leading to some speculation his Hall of Fame career could be nearing its end.

Then came nine straight Interleague games at Baltimore, Minnesota and Toronto. Thome, fresh off the DL -- and regular plate appearances during his rehab assignment -- exploded offensively. He batted .333 (12-for-36) with a pair of doubles, four homers and 14 RBIs. The question, of course, was whether Thome would be able to stay sharp once he went back to getting only an occasional at-bat.

So far, so good. Thome's walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth beat the Rays on Saturday.

Phillies hitting coach Greg Gross, who is fifth on the all-time list with 143 career pinch-hits, said it takes some time to get used to not getting four or five plate appearances every game.

"If you go back and check the first 30 times that I pinch-hit, the numbers are not very good. I can remember going like 1-for-16 the first 16 times I hit," Gross said. "It took a while to adjust to it because I was used to playing every day. Then I got into that, and you get into a role and you get into a pattern, and you get comfortable with it. And then things sort of turned around. So it's not something you just walk into and you're good at. That doesn't happen very often."

Gross and Giambi agree that the most important thing is finding a routine.

"The only advice I give anybody is try to find a routine that keeps you constantly moving, that you don't sit," Gross said. "Take advantage of the cage, which is something we didn't have when I was playing. Also, we have the machine in there that they can see something coming at them any speed that you want. So you utilize that, especially for your eyes. Because that's at 60 feet, 6 inches, just like the mound is. And I think that's something that can help these guys when they go in and try to pinch hit."

Added Giambi: "The biggest thing I found is I had to develop a routine. I'll usually go hit off the tee in like the third inning, soft toss in the fifth and then have someone throw to me in the seventh or eighth inning. [Manager Jim Tracy] usually uses me late in games. I usually get that last at-bat.

"So you have to try to develop some kind of routine to get fresh. And sometimes the at-bats don't come for a long time. There have been times I haven't played for 10 days just because the way the game matches up. He wants to save that bullet, and it never gets to me. So it's a tough role. It's fun because you can get to walk them off. There's nothing better in the game. It's exciting, but it's definitely a tough role."

Giambi also mentioned confidence. That's why Saturday's home run looms so large for Thome. It was easily the biggest hit he's gotten as a full-time pinch-hitter. Instead of just thinking his routine works, now he knows it does.

"That's baseball, whether you're a young player or a 20-year vet," Thome said. "When you see results, it makes you think, 'OK, this can get done.' It's like hitting a good golf shot. You hit one, you want to keep coming back. And that's what makes it fun.

"It's almost like you have to have a little chip on your shoulder. It's not arrogance. It's when you walk on deck and you're pinch-hitting, there's got to be that inner confidence that comes out. Like, 'I'm going to go up here and I'm going to get it done.' Now, statistically, it doesn't always happen. But mentality-wise, you think that and you try to put yourself in a frame of mind that it's not just one at-bat. This is a really important at-bat. Without putting pressure on yourself, either. So that's the fine line."

Here's the routine that Thome has developed. In around the third inning, he begins moving around, stretching, maybe hits a little bit. Around the fifth, he starts bouncing back and forth between the dugout and the batting cage. Around the sixth, he begins swinging in earnest, having the pitcher stand several feet in front of the mound, throwing hard to simulate the mid-90s fastballs he can expect to see if he faces the opposing team's closer, working on his hands.

"And then, at that point, hopefully, just go up and have a good at-bat," he said with a laugh.

Interleague Play may have ended. The chances for Thome and Giambi to contribute, in a different and more difficult role, hasn't.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.