Clint Barmes liked to think he was immune to the pressure. He wasn’t.
When the veteran shortstop arrived in Pittsburgh last spring after signing a two-year, $10.5-million free agent contract, he felt the need to prove his worth right away.
It led him down a path he knows he should have avoided. Though Barmes had been productive during his final season in Houston in 2011 — batting .244 with 12 homers and 39 RBIs in 123 games for one of baseball’s worst teams— he spent the winter tinkering with his swing.
He nearly tinkered it into oblivion.
Barmes hit just .170 the first two months of the season, remaining in the lineup only due to sublime work in the field and his lengthy relationship with manager Clint Hurdle that dates back to when Barmes broke into the majors with the Colorado Rockies in 2003. Hurdle stayed patient and kept sending Barmes out there even as the boos and the 0-for-4 nights piled up.
“It’s hard to say if I had signed somewhere else if they would have stayed with me as long as Clint did last year,” Barmes said. “But he knows me. I’ve spent most of my career under him. He had seen something like this before and he believed I would get it right.”
The hole was so deep, it took Barmes the rest of the season to dig out of it. He finished the year with a .229 average, 20 points below his career mark. In a way, however, it felt like a success.
He could have bailed when things went south quickly. He didn’t. He went back to work, fixed what he could and hit .251 over the season’s final four months. Now the 34-year-old is hoping that momentum carries over into 2013.
“I’ve just made things as simple as I can make it on the offensive side,” Barmes said. “I’m a lot more comfortable with where I’m at and expect to have a lot better start than I did last year.”
It would be difficult to do much worse, though the way Barmes continued to grind even as his average plummeted immediately won over a young clubhouse in search of some veteran leadership.
“He’s somebody that I’ve learned a lot from, especially with some of the things that he went through on the offensive end,” second baseman Neil Walker said. “To see him go about his business on the defensive end has made me that much better of a defensive player.”
And in turn helped provide the Pirates with some much-needed stability up the middle. Barmes and Walker quickly developed a rapport — both on the field and off — that helped Pittsburgh contend for a playoff spot until early September.
The fact Walker was sidelined the majority of the season’s last six weeks with a back injury happened about the same time the Pirates began to falter isn’t a coincidence. Sure, the Pirates missed his bat but they missed the fluidity of having their two middle infielders separated, too.
Walker is healthy and Barmes insists his confidence is high. It wasn’t the smoothest spring. He hit .178 during Grapefruit League play, the lowest among Pittsburgh’s regulars.
Still, there’s no doubt Barmes will be penciled into the lineup for the opener against the Chicago Cubs on Monday. Given Pittsburgh’s lineup, Barmes knows he doesn’t have to come out and try to hit .450 the first month of the season. He also knows he has the trust of his manager and his teammates, allowing him to relax, something that was difficult last spring.
“When I go out there and try to make things happen and try to get results, it’s usually blown up and backfired in my face,” Barmes said.
Barmes is at the point in his career where he understands what he’s good at, and what’s best left to others. He will never hit in the heart of the order. There’s no reason to swing like a slugger when you’re not one.
“If you’ve got guys at other positions that are going to be big and drive in runs for you, you know it takes a little pressure off a guy like myself and my situation,” he said. “If I go up there and I battle and I have good at-bats ... at the end of the season, I’m going to be OK.”