MINNEAPOLIS -- About 20 minutes before he is set to take the mound at the Metrodome, the Indians left-hander is giving himself a little pep talk. Forget painting the corners, getting ahead in the count or commanding the fastball. This hurler has another game plan in mind. "Meatballs, meatballs, meatballs," working coach Ruben Felix says to himself.
Yes, in 20 minutes, it will be Felix's job not to dazzle the Indians' hitters with balls that dip in and out of the strike zone. His job, rather, will be to heave them a seemingly endless series of juicy, hittable pitches. So don't read too much into the "practice" part of the term batting practice. For the players involved, the activity itself is little more than glorified stretching. Game plans are not formulated, mechanical adjustments are not made and particular kinks are not worked out in BP. It is merely a time to get loose. "Batting practice is about getting a feel for the bat," Indians hitting coach Derek Shelton says. "The real work is done in the cages in early BP, when we're actually working on the fundamental part of the swing." Early BP is taken on the field or in the indoor cages. For a standard, 7:05 p.m. ET game, it generally takes place around 3 p.m. Attendance is not mandatory, but just about every player takes part in it with regularity. "You try to hit everything the other way," designated hitter Travis Hafner says of the early hitting process. "That's really where you get your swing." Actual BP -- the session often viewed by early arriving fans hoping to get ahold of a souvenir -- is as much about perspiration as preparation. It's an opportunity to shake off the dust and scrub away the rust, not to pore over scouting reports on that day's opposing pitcher or to make changes in a player's swing path. "Very rarely will you see me talk about mechanics with them [during BP]," Shelton says. "We might talk about pitches or the pitcher that day, but it's too close to the game time for them to be worried about the fundamental aspect of their swing." That's an important point for the coaches who throw BP to keep in mind. In Spring Training, they get an idea of where each hitter likes to have the ball thrown, and they make sure to work the ball in and around that spot for the remainder of the season. "The first thing you want to accomplish," says pitching coach Carl Willis, "is for [the hitter] to be comfortable in the box and take the swings that are going to allow him to get in a working frame of mind. There will be times Derek will be behind the cage, and he might say whether he wants you to work them away or in. For the most part, though, you let them take their natural swing."
Most hitters like the ball thrown on the outer edge of the plate, giving them a chance to focus on driving it toward the middle of the field or the opposite way.
"Early on, you want it middle-away, so you can hit it the other way," Hafner says. "After that, it's pretty much wherever. My approach is to just hit it where it's pitched."
For the most part, batters aren't trying to crank out home runs, as happy as those blasts might make the fans, though Hafner admitted he'll often swing for the fences toward the end of his session.
"Usually, if you see home runs, you see them later in BP, when they're getting their contact point up and they're getting the barrel farther up in the zone," Shelton says. "Home runs in BP are for the fans. They're not for the players. These guys are Major League hitters. If they want to stand up there and hit nothing but home runs, they could."
Every position player gets a chance to stand up and take some hacks in the cage before game time. Starters go first, followed by the reserves. They are divided into groups of four or five, with batters rotating every five or six pitches. Each hitter sees about 30 pitches, in all.
The coaches stand about 50 feet from the plate, behind a net, with their pitches coming in at the 58-62 mph range.
"Because it's 10 feet closer [than the normal distance between the mound and the plate]," Shelton says, "it gets on you pretty quick."
Not quick enough, though, to get a firm read on what's in store for later that night. That's why players don't put much stock in their BP performance.
"It doesn't dictate how you're going to do," center fielder Grady Sizemore says. "Some days, you feel horrible in BP and have a great game, and other days you feel great in BP and have a horrible game. Baseball doesn't always work out the way you think it would."
Still, BP is viewed as a necessary part of a ballplayer's work, which is why a coach like Felix, who throws to the Indians' starters every time a left-hander is going to be on the mound for the opposition, takes his job seriously.
"We try," Felix says, "to make it as realistic as possible."
One meatball after another.
: : : This Edition: July 19, 2006 : : :
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.