2002-09-21 / Sports

Better Late Than Never...

Burnitz Gets It Going
By Bryan Hoch

Better Late Than Never:
Baseball Columnist

Earlier this month, the Mets reeled off seven straight victories to wash away some of the bad taste left by a league record 15-game home losing streak. As unlikely as that outburst might have been, it's nothing compared to the hot stretch recently assembled by Jeromy Burnitz.

As the Mets play out the string of their September schedule and cast longing eyes toward the spring, Burnitz has found his own purpose for the final weeks of the season. The primary poster child for the club's disappointing year, the outfielder has toiled to fine-tune his power stroke and, in doing so, is providing a glimmer of the player the Mets thought they would have all along.

"My stroke was, pretty much, flat out gone for a long time," Burnitz said Tuesday, just minutes after his game-winning home run led the Mets to a 3-1 win over the Cubs. "I've really been fighting to get it to a point where it's acceptable for going up there in a game situation and putting a decent at-bat together."

Exactly why Burnitz wasn't able to perform to the standards he set for himself in Milwaukee has been a perplexing mystery. Over five full seasons with the Brewers, Burnitz averaged nearly 33 home runs and over 100 RBI, but he won't come close to approaching those plateaus with New York.

"I'm sure it's a combination of things. I don't know that you can nail it down to one," he said. "It's basic stuff. It's finding that ability to relax again and let the ball come to you instead of being a real jumpy guy."

Much of Burnitz's realization can be attributed to the advice of former major-leaguer Chris Chambliss, who joined the Mets as a hitting coach in June. Recently, the two have spent a great deal of time discussing the finer mechanics of being a power hitter at the major league level, concepts that have been mostly foreign to Burnitz.

"I've been a jumper and a hooker my whole career," Burnitz said, referring to his tendency to aggressively jump at the ball and try to launch a fly ball on each swing. "I've just been able to do it with success. It's hard for me, in game intensity, to tone it down."

But the results stemming from Burnitz's and Chambliss' work tell the story. Despite a disappointing overall season, Burnitz can take solace in the fact that he is putting together one heck of a month to cap off the year. Dating back to Sept. 4, Burnitz has been one of New York's most productive hitters, batting at a .354 clip with seven home runs and 12 RBI.

"He's finally found that elusive stroke of his and looks really good swinging the bat," manager Bobby Valentine said. "He's got his balance, his leg kick, and his power stroke. When he feels good about his stroke, he's a pretty darned good hitter, and he's hitting like one right now.

"I don't know why it was such a long search, but I'm glad he found it."

All parties concerned are hopeful that this resurgence could signal a turning of the tide for the 33-year-old power hitter, although general manager Steve Phillips cautions that using September performances as a benchmark can be misleading.

"Sometimes, it's like spring training evaluations," Phillips said. "There's not enough of a window to get the clearest picture. You don't want to lock into what you want to see - or what you don't want to see - over a one month period."

Regardless, the Mets are likely to feature Burnitz in their Opening Day lineup for 2003, if for no other reason than that he appears to be immovable. Signed through next year to a contract that is due to pay him $11.5 million, the Mets would be hard-pressed to find a club willing to take on that financial responsibility on an unknown quantity.

That's just fine for Burnitz, who's already looking forward to using September's good vibes as a starting point for his continuing offseason work.

"I'm about to have four months with no baseball, and the thing that's most fresh in your mind is what you remember the most," he said. "If you finish strong, you can go into the offseason with those positive feelings."

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