Brewers' Hart finding his footing at first base
MILWAUKEE — All 78 inches of Corey Hart lay extended in the infield dirt on the first baseline at Miller Park. The Milwaukee Brewers — clinging to a one-run lead with two outs in the eighth inning on Monday against the Toronto Blue Jays — needed this one. Still lying in front of the base he had been guarding, Hart held his glove hand up ever so slightly, indicating that, yes indeed, he had just made one of the best catches of his major league career.
And for the first time in that career — spanning nine seasons — Hart's highlight-reel, full-extension catch came in the infield, where the Brewers have plugged him in at first base various times this season since mid-May.
Now, after seeing Hart flash an impressive glove on more than one occasion at the position, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke might never let him leave.
"He's been huge for us," Roenicke said Tuesday. "He has played an outstanding first base so far. If this is him starting out and he gets better from here, he's going to be a Gold Glove first baseman."
Hart, 30, never has seemed — and still doesn't seem — wild about moving from right field to first base. When asked, however, he said he would play wherever the Brewers wanted him to. The two-time All-Star will do whatever keeps him around.
That attitude, that willingness to alter his game at the drop of a hat has been a theme throughout Hart's career. Without it, Hart might have spent much less than nine seasons with the Brewers by now.
Hart's position changes began during his very first day of camp as an 18-year-old prospect with the Brewers in Maryvale, Ariz. Drafted as an outfielder — despite the fact he played shortstop in high school — Hart remembers hearing one of the coaches ask for a volunteer at first base after one of the Brewers' first-base prospects had broken a bone.
Knowing that the Brewers had a wealth of other prospects just like him looking for time in the outfield, he was the first to volunteer.
"They had a ton of guys," Hart said. "I don't know how many at-bats I would've gotten in the outfield. I ended up getting quite a few at-bats at first that year."
He grew comfortable at the position, claiming on Tuesday that he felt most comfortable there during his early years in the minor leagues. Then in 2002, he was asked to change positions.
Milwaukee had another first baseman below Hart who seemed to have major league potential in Brad Nelson. Assuming Hart could change positions more smoothly, they moved him to the other corner of the infield.
Of course, it was only a year and a half before Hart changed positions again. The Brewers had signed third baseman Wes Helms to a contract after the 2003 season, and Hart's path to the majors became significantly murkier. And despite not yet making it to Milwaukee, everyone within the organization knew Prince Fielder was destined to be the team's first baseman of the future.
That meant Hart found himself the odd man out again. So he changed positions for a third time, back to the outfield. And that change stuck for the most part until this season.
That's when Fielder left town and the Brewers' new first baseman, Mat Gamel, was lost for the year with a torn ACL. Soon, backup first baseman Travis Ishikawa had gone down as well, putting another position change for Hart on the table.
It had been a while since Hart had been a first baseman, and he hadn't been one against major league competition. But the Brewers coaches were honest with him from the beginning: They didn't really expect much.
"Early on, they told me not to expect to be good over there," Hart said. "Honestly, they told me don't worry about making mistakes, don't worry about screwing up because they knew it was going to be a challenge. Any time you learn a position, especially at this level, it's tough. You can put a lot of pressure on yourself. . . . I think that helped me not putting pressure on myself because I didn't expect a whole lot."
The Brewers certainly didn't expect what they've gotten so far out of Hart — impressive scoops from tough infield throws, diving stops and saves on errant throws that, without Hart's height, likely would've been errors. Entering Wednesday, Hart has zero errors in 24 games this season at first base, 19 of them starts.
"I knew he could be pretty good, but he's played better than I thought he could," Roenicke said. "This quickly? He's got great instincts. I'm surprised he could get them that quick. . . . But man, he's been outstanding there."
Hart is significantly more modest about his play than his manager, admitting that he hasn't expected to make any of the plays he's made thus far at first. He even claimed that his nerves have nearly gotten the best of him at times, describing these moments as little panic attacks — especially with a man on first and a left-handed batter at the plate.
"I guess I'm shocked that I've played as well as I have over there," Hart said. "At the same time, I'm really not expecting to make all these plays. . . . It's still new. I'm still nervous, and they know I'm still not that comfortable. I'm getting more comfortable, but you know, I need to play over there a lot to start feeling better about myself."
Still, Hart insists that he'll play wherever he is needed most. And Roenicke has remained reluctant to put a name to the position for more than a month now, as Hart's defensive surge hasn't changed much on that front. Roenicke did admit, however, after Hart's sparkling moments in Monday night's game that he might have thought a few times about making the change permanent.
So Hart will remain, at least for now, without a permanent home. He'll continue to take ground balls every day at first base and likely continue to play there while right fielder Norichika Aoki maintains his hot bat.
And for a shortstop-turned-outfielder-turned-first baseman-turned-third baseman-turned-outfielder-turned-first baseman like Corey Hart, that's just fine for now.
"I've (changed positions) a lot," Hart said. "I've told them that if it keeps me around, I'll do whatever they want me to do."
He pauses, thinking about the possibilities.
"Maybe not catch," he added. "That's scary."
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