MILWAUKEE — Before one of the most bizarre injuries of the 2012 baseball season took place in a hotel room in Los Angeles, Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy was on a pace at the plate that would rival any catcher in the major leagues.
A batting average of .345. Thirty RBI — one of the highest marks in baseball at the time. A .514 mark with runners in scoring position. Lucroy certainly had the look of an All-Star. And considering his team had just signed him to a long-term contract prior to the season, the Brewers catcher also had the look of an absolute steal in a market that is terribly thin behind the plate.
But with a falling suitcase in that Los Angeles hotel room came the worst possible thing that could happen to a player on the brink of his breakout season. With a broken hand, Lucroy wouldn’t return to the Brewers lineup for another two months, effectively halting the hot streak he had been building from April on.
“I feel really bad for him,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said at the time. “He’s having some kind of incredible year so far. He feels really bad, and I feel bad for him.”
For two months, Lucroy talked about how he would work as hard as he could to continue his breakneck pace when he came back. Roenicke remained skeptical. And true to Roenicke’s tempered expectations, Lucroy struggled out of the gate.
Three weeks into his return it became painstakingly clear that Lucroy couldn’t find his rhythm. Through 16 games, he was batting just .239 and had managed just five more RBI. But even through his struggles, there was an obvious degree of bad luck, as Lucroy’s BABIP dropped to a ridiculously low .244 in that span, suggesting that he just wasn’t getting balls to drop in play. There was just no groove to his game like their had been in the season’s first few months.
Perhaps worst for Lucroy was watching his ability to knock in runners in scoring position slide upon his return. He just couldn’t manage to get a hit when he and the team needed one most — something that had come so easily to him before.
“It’s tough,” Lucroy said. “I take a lot of pride on getting guys in when they’re in scoring position. I thought I was doing pretty well at that before I got hurt. So now that I’m back out, I’m not getting the job done as consistently and, of course, I’m not happy with it. I’m trying to get back to that point.”
Known for being notoriously hard on himself, Lucroy was particularly frustrated this time around. He had seen the results in the season’s early months. He knew what he was capable of. So why wasn’t there any rhythm?
Roenicke knew this sort of slow start was likely. It’s just what happens when guys miss two months of a season; streaks have to be started all over again.
“I think it seems like that’s always the case,” Roenicke said. “You send a guy to rehab, and it’s always tough to know how many at-bats to give guys. But certainly you go through a whole spring training with 30 games, and whether he’s playing 20 of them, he’s playing a lot. When you send a guy to rehab, he’s only playing five games, so it’s different.”
But with Philadelphia in town, Lucroy started to find that rhythm again, bit by bit. He tallied three hits in seven at-bats heading into the Brewers series against the Cubs. Things were beginning to come together again, it seemed.
Then, with a 1-0 count against the Cubs’ Justin Germano, Lucroy looked as though he was ready to announce his return to the rhythm that had made the first few months of his season so special. He blasted a home run deep to left field to bring the Brewers within one run — his first homer since August 1.
Three innings later, that return was announced again — this time, rather loudly.
As the cherry on top of a dominant eight-run inning, Lucroy smashed what was undoubtedly his most towering home run of 2012 to the bleachers in left field, bringing in three runs. And as he trotted around the bases, it was clear that the groove, at least momentarily, was back.
“It’s a progression,” Lucroy said. “Obviously, hitting two home runs in a game doesn’t happen all the time. I’m just trying to be consistent and have good at-bats and hit the ball hard somewhere. Sometimes games like this will happen, and other times, you go 0-for-4. Hopefully, I can just keep getting better and keep working hard.”
But will he ever return to the All-Star pace that put him in the conversation as one of the best young catchers in the league? Regardless, he’s holding himself to that standard.
“It is (an unrealistic standard),” Lucroy said. “I feel like if you ever think of yourself as being good enough, you’re not going to get any better. I’m not too happy about that last inning when I missed that block on Livan (Hernandez) and let the run score. I’m not happy about it at all. There’s always things to get better at.”