CINCINNATI — Jay Bruce was sitting in the home dugout in Great American Ball Park on a cloudy afternoon, a bat held loosely in his hands.
Looking up to see a writer he said, without prompting, "I’m going to give you a lot to write about this month. Be ready."
Other than the fact Bruce works as hard on his game as anybody wearing a major league uniform and owns inner confidence with a capital ‘C,’ he knows he had just torn a page off the calendar.
April is gone and if Bruce could eliminate that month and make it an 11-month year his hitting statistics would look much prettier on a piece of paper. Historically, April is a lost month for the 26-year-old Cincinnati Reds right fielder.
And April, 2014 was no exception — a .225 average with three homers and 14 RBI.
"April, man. Always April," he said. "I even revved it up a little bit in the offseason and during spring training, did a little more to try to expedite the process. It’s not from lack of work. My biggest goal right now is that when I got to sleep at night I know that I worked at my craft, did everything I could do to put myself in position to be successful."
As Bruce talked, he was in a sweat, even though it was 3 Â½ hours before the game. He had just come out of the indoor batting cages, where he takes up to 70 swings, "A normal routine, every single day, whether I want to or not. It is just a routine to get my swing path going in the right direction each day, muscle memory."
There is no concern in the upper echelons of the team, or even the lower ones, over Bruce’s play. All they have to do is check his previous Aprils and then flip over his baseball card and read that over the last three seasons he has hit more than 30 home runs each year and driven in 97, 99 and 109 runs.
And during April of this year he has continued Gold Glove outfield play, drawing walks and — a stunning new development — stolen bases.
Bruce went 5-for-5 in April and his career-high for a single season is nine in 2012.
"Yeah, stealing bases this year is a conscious thing for me," he said. "It is picking the right spots. I’m not a base-stealer per se, but I feel I can steal a base and help the team in times that tell you that it is OK. I don’t ever want to try to force things and run when it doesn’t make sense. If I end up with 18 or nine or seven, if I’m seven-for-seven I know I picked the right time to run."
They aren’t exactly The Runnin’ Reds, but the team is second in the National League with 30, just one behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"We’re not a team full of speed-burners, with the exception of Billy Hamilton (11 for 16) but we’re a team of guys who know how to play the game and take advantage of situations."
The run-more philosophy comes from new manager Bryan Price, who gives everybody the green light with a few exceptions when he puts the red-light hold on.
"Bryan has given us the freedom and responsibility and respect to do that," Bruce added. "It was pretty much the same way with (former manager) Dusty Baker, but Bryan is a little more liberal with it. Running into outs is when you know you shouldn’t do it and as a major-league baseball player you should [know] when you shouldn’t do it."
As Bruce improves year after year after year, different facets of his game sharpen. For example, April didn’t frustrate him at the plate, make him too eager. He was patient and took walks — 22 of them, third behind teammate Joey Votto (26) and Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCuthen (24).
As for taking walks, especially with men on base, Bruce says, "The competitor in you wants to get the job done. But when they pitch around you or intentionally walk you it is a compliment that they want to pass you and get to the next hitter. I’m also confident in my teammates. So the more guys you get on base, the more runs you’re going to score. I have plenty of chances to get the job done. I consider getting on base a big part of getting the job done. I take everything I can get."
Bruce paused and said of April, "It hasn’t come as nicely as I’ve wanted so far, but I’m taking the right steps in the direction I’ve been working on diligently for years now to be the best player I can be."