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Updated: July 21st, 2010 11:56pm
Mackey: The rise of J.J. Hardy?

Mackey: The rise of J.J. Hardy?

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the third inning of the Minnesota Twins' 6-0 victory over the Indians on Wednesday, with one out and runners on first and second in a tied ballgame -- sound familiar? -- three-hole hitter Delmon Young boldly opted not to bunt and instead roped an RBI double to the left-field corner off laboring Cleveland starter Jake Westbrook, putting the Twins ahead 1-0.

Michael Cuddyer followed with an RBI single, but momentum stalled when Young was needlessly gunned out at the plate by 10-feet.

Holding Young at third would have been the optimal strategy, because Jim Thome -- who at .278/.417/.635 still hits righties like it's 2001 -- would have batted with the bases loaded and one out. With first base open, Thome eventually drew a walk.

Sure, the Twins still had a 2-0 lead, but this is the type of situation, or variations like it, that has continuously popped up all season -- the Twins put men on base, then ground into a double play. Or make a baserunning mistake. Or fail to take full advantage of a mediocre opposing pitcher. Or take three out of four from the White Sox, then lose two straight games to the Indians.

You get the picture.

On Wednesday, however, when it looked like the rally would be halted at two runs, Hardy came up and smacked a ball down the left-field line for a two-out, two-RBI double, putting the Twins up 4-0.

Now, let's not glorify this scenario too much. Hardy's pick-me-up double was a huge hit at the time, but it wound up being the difference between a 4-0 and a 6-0 score in a game where Francisco Liriano held the Indians scoreless for seven innings. And the Twins probably should have scored more than six, considering they jammed the basepaths with 19 men. Hardy himself stranded three in the seventh.

Hardy's numbers this season aren't overwhelming. After a 1-for-4 performance on Wednesday, the shortstop is hitting .249/.287/.362 with three home runs and 18 RBI.

Surely, Carlos Gomez -- whom the Twins traded for Hardy last fall -- could post numbers like that, right?

(Oh wait, he is... .238/.291/.364.)

But consider this: If we subtract the 12-game stretch from late-May to early-June when he played through a wrist injury, Hardy is hitting .279/.314/.415, good for a .729 OPS. Hardy doesn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, but his OPS would rank seventh in the majors among shortstops, and second in the American League.

Again, that's second among American-League shortstops -- possibly a testament to a weak crop and/or injuries, but also an example of where Hardy ranks relative to his light-hitting peers.

By comparison, Twins shortstops in 2009 posted a .683 OPS -- a collection that consisted of Nick Punto, Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert and Orlando Cabrera -- and that number includes Cabrera's torrid September.

It's easy to be spoiled by looking at the Hanley Ramirezes and Rafael Furcals of the world. But to put it simply, there aren't many good-hitting shortstops in the majors right now. And Hardy, hitting .340/.354/.447 since his return from the disabled list on July 3, seems to just be getting started.

"My swing is getting there, it's getting to where I want it to be. It's not where I want to be, but it's very close," said Hardy, who has been studying film of every one of his at bats between innings. "I'm hitting a lot of groundballs that are finding holes, and that's nice, and there's nothing wrong with that, but when I start driving the ball is when I think I'll be back to my old self."

The "old self" Hardy refers to is the guy who hit 50 home runs between 2007 and 2008 in Milwaukee. He lost his way in '09, was sent back to the minor leagues in August, and went through enormous mental struggles that eventually led to the Brewers sending him to a sports psychologist.

"I give a lot of credit to having last year behind me and kind of knowing how to get past it," Hardy said. "I think this whole year has been completely different for me. Even when I have had my struggles, even when my wrist was bothering me, it didn't get me down at any point like I was last year."

And offense is just half of it. Hardy still rates as one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball. He was a human web gem throughout the entire homestand, and he currently owns the top UZR per 150 games at his position, as well as one of the top plus/minus ratings, according to BillJamesOnline.net.

To appease the UZR-illiterate (it's OK, there's no shame), Hardy also has committed only two errors in 436 innings.

Of course, Hardy's inability to stay healthy during May and June has decreased his overall value considerably, but when healthy, compared to his peers at shortstop, he has been very solid.

It remains to be seen if Hardy will ever reach the peaks from two and three seasons ago. But at this point, he could finally be headed in the right direction.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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