LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The swing that Ryan Klesko describes as `complicated and big' has produced some memorable home runs and some unforgettable strikeouts.
It's an all-or-nothing stroke that either sucks the air from ballparks or sends balls into distant reaches of the galaxy.
"He's strong enough that he's still going to hit a ton of home runs whether he's going for it or just trying to meet the ball," Braves manager Bobby Cox said.
Klesko will never be accused of holding anything back from his swing. But it's that seek-and-destroy approach to incoming baseballs that has occasionally created problems for him. Cox would prefer to see his left-handed slugger sending pitches back up the middle or into the left-center field gap, rather than attempting to pull them over the right field wall.
"When he was first signed his power was to center and the opposite way," he said. "He's swinging good this spring. I don't think he's trying to yank it out of the ballpark with every swing. That's a big difference. You don't have to hit it out every at-bat to win a game."
Bothered by wrist and back problems last year, Klesko's power and production tumbled. He arrived in camp 10 pounds lighter, appearing in the best shape of his career, and has worked diligently to regain his natural stroke. Before going hitless in two at-bats against the Mets on Tuesday, he had hit in all eight games he had played and his .440 average was tied for the seventh-best in the National League.
Klesko has focused on hitting pitches up the middle and toward left field, though he'll still occasionally turn on an inside pitch and send it into right field.
"My swing is so much more natural going up the middle and using the gaps," he said. "Sometimes it takes what happened to me last year to become a better hitter."
What happened last year was Klesko tried to pull everything and was defeated by the second-deepest right-center field gap (390 feet) in the major leagues. He finished with 23 doubles, the second-best total of his career, but his home runs fell from 34 to 24 and his RBI total decreased from 93 to 84.
"I pulled off my game for a couple of months and I shouldn't have," Klesko said. "I tried to do too much, too early, put too much pressure on myself. (People asked) how come you haven't hit a home run this month? I'm not blaming it on anyone else, but that gets stuck in your head too."
Despite his fall in power numbers, Klesko still heads into the season ranked ninth among active players with an average of one home run every 16 at-bats, 11th with a .538 slugging percentage and tied for 12th with an RBI every 5.3 at-bats.
While he has posted solid numbers in his first four full seasons in the majors, Klesko hasn't put together a season that vaulted him among the game's top sluggers. He's hit more than 30 homers and driven in more than 90 runs just once and in the last two seasons he's averaged 129 strikeouts.
Cox wants him to realize he doesn't need to try to hit the ball to Pluto to climb among the league's home run leaders and he doesn't have to hit homers to be productive. It's a lesson he's had to learn the hard way.
"When my swing gets long it's not a good swing at all," Klesko said. "I'd like to see if I can drive in 100 runs. If I can get my at-bats, I think it will come."
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