Balancing hard work, preservation key down stretch

Balancing hard work, preservation key down stretch

Balancing hard work, preservation key down stretch
It's no secret that fans love to see effort from their favorite baseball players.

Fans want players to show up early and work hard. They want to hear stories about guys being the first in the clubhouse and going straight to work in the batting cages.

But as the well-worn saying goes, the baseball season is a marathon. And how many marathoners spend the middle of the race in a full-out sprint?

At this time of the season, especially, moderation is key for players whose bodies have worn down from playing games for six months straight with very few days off. Even for slumping players, the best option may not be extra batting practice or more time in the bullpen.

"Most guys that make it to the big leagues are guys that have really, really good work ethics," Padres slugger Chase Headley said. "You have some guys that get away with it -- being head and shoulders, talent-wise, better [than everyone else], but everybody that makes it to the big leagues has a really good work ethic, so it's not always about doing more."

Headley would know. He's tied for tops in the Majors in games played and has gotten stronger as the season has worn on. Since the All-Star break, Headley leads the National League in homers and RBIs, and he recently won the NL Player of the Month Award for August.

"It's not always better, going in and taking 1,000 swings," Headley said. "That's what fans would like to think: 'Hey, this guy is really dedicated.' Well, yeah, maybe he is, but it might not be the smartest thing to do."

Rays manager Joe Maddon has mastered the art of both working hard and working smart in recent seasons. This year, Maddon employed a strategy in late August that showcased his desire to keep his players from pressing or overworking.

"It's American Legion ball this week," Maddon tweeted on Aug. 20. "No mandatory BP. Just show up and play. I want the guys to be fresh."

They were fresh enough to crawl their way back into the American League East race, and now the Rays sit two games back in the division.

The Rays have also become known for their strong finishes, which many attribute to an overall team freshness that is a staple of Maddon-led clubs.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly recently rested two stars -- Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp -- for an important game on Sunday night against the NL West-rival Giants.

Kemp was hampered by an inflamed left shoulder and would have missed Sunday anyway because of a cortisone injection he needed. But while Kershaw, known for his workmanlike approach to his job, wasn't enamored by Mattingly's decision, the lefty said he understood his skipper's reasoning: preservation.

A healthy Kershaw was able to throw seven innings and allow just one unearned run in Arizona on Tuesday, though the Dodgers lost, 1-0, to the D-backs.

"I want [Kershaw] to be in the best position to pitch the rest of the year," Mattingly said Sunday. "We have 20-something games left. Obviously, it is a big game; if we win, it's a two-game swing [in the division and] puts pressure on St. Louis or whoever's in front. But this is all about his best chance to be healthy the rest of the way."

Hindered throughout his career by back problems, Mattingly played during a time when hard work was emphasized more than preservation. Mattingly, ever the perfectionist, aspired to work harder than everyone, and that wasn't always good for his back.

Headley put his key to sustainability in succinct terms: "You have to understand the amount of work that you need to get done, but balance that with trying to limit excess."

That means sometimes a trip to the cold tub or the trainer's room can be a better option than a trip to the cages. It also means that the offseason, when the body isn't taking near the toll it does during the season, can be the best time to get that work in.

San Diego outfielder Will Venable echoed Headley's sentiment.

"Once you've had a couple full seasons under your belt, you realize that early on in the season, you want to do all that extra work," Venable said. "But for the most part, you have to pace yourself.

"You have to be professional where you come to the ballpark every day and work hard but still be able to sustain yourself."

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.