Jamal Strong: Chompin' at the Bit

Tacoma outfielder Jamal Strong started the season on fire with 15 hits in his first 29 at bats, but he's missed the last two weeks with a hamstring injury. Almost ready to return to the field, Strong talked to InsidethePark.com's Joe Kaiser recently about the injury, the offseason and his huge hopes for 2004.

When Jamal Strong felt a twinge in his right hamstring on April 14 at Las Vegas, the Tacoma Rainiers weren't taking any chances. Considered one of the Seattle Mariners' top three outfield prospects heading into 2004, the Rainiers knew they had to be cautious.

So despite Strong's torrid start at the plate – he was 15-29 (.517) before the injury – it was time to shut him down, at least for a while.

Already, it's been two frustrating weeks down the drain for Strong, who understands why the team is taking the injury very seriously.

"They don't want this to linger throughout the season," he said, referring to the Rainiers. "They want to be cautious now so I won't be hampered by it all season."

Relegated to an observer while waiting for the hamstring to heal, the down time has been eating away at the 25-year-old.

"I'd like to be out there to help out my teammates," said Strong. "I'm not doing any good out there on the bench."

In his absence the Rainiers have went a mediocre 6-5, missing a true leadoff hitter. They have plugged in Elpidio Guzman and Luis Ugueto atop the batting order with some success, but been severely limited as far as outfield depth goes.

The injury couldn't have come at a worse time for Strong, who through the first week of the season was showing the same abilities he put on display for the Mariners while up with the big league club at Spring Training.

"I was seeing the ball well," he said. "Last year I got hurt in Spring Training (with a separated shoulder). This year I got to stay up there for a long time and I hit well. That gave me a lot of confidence. I just told myself that if I could hit up there I could hit anywhere.

"I knew (the Mariners) had some people coming in and there wouldn't be much of a chance of making the team, but I just wanted to go in and make a good impression on Bob Melvin so if he ever needs anybody up there he can always look down and say, "Strong had a good spring and he could really help out."

That was the same attitude Strong took heading into the winter, coming off of 2003 season that ended with 12 games in a Mariners uniform. Given the taste of the big league experience, the M's 6th-round draft choice in 2000 set out to do all he could over the offseason to prepare for 2004 and give him a chance to stick with the M's.

He stayed in Arizona all winter along with fellow outfield prospect Chris Snelling, hitting the weight room and going through a daily workout regimen. By the time Spring Training started, Strong had added 10 pounds of "good weight," putting him at his ideal weight of 180.

"I feel stronger now and a little bit quicker, so I hope it pays off," said Strong. "As long as I maintain my speed, that's the main thing."

Strong says while the workout regimen was intended to make him stronger, it wasn't a measure he took to change his style of play. For a guy that has 217 stolen bases to his credit in four years of minor league baseball, he says he didn't bulk up enough to become a power hitter.

"That's not my game," he said. I'm a leadoff hitter. I just want to concentrate on getting on base and letting the big guys behind me drive me in. I don't want to go up there and put on 20 pounds, that's not me.

"I just want to stick to my game and that's hitting line drives and ground balls. I need to utilize my speed. If I hit the ball in the air it's not doing me no good or my team."

Strong hopes to return to the lineup in the coming days, possibly as early as today in the team's series opener at Salt Lake City. Rainiers manager Dan Rohn has been waiting for the team to play in warmer weather before bringing his speedy centerfielder back for every-day action.

For now, the focus is on returning, but before long Strong will be back at full speed and with his goals shifted back to where they were at the start of the season – making it back to the big leagues.

His first experience there last season is still fresh in his mind, and has him itching to get back.

"It was all you could dream for," Strong said. "I didn't get many at bats, I got only two, but I got to the big leagues and that has been my goal since I was little. I achieved my goals, but now I want to get up there and stay there. That's my next goal."

Joe Kaiser lives in Newcastle, Wash. and is the publisher of InsidethePark.com. Feedback is always welcome at JoeKaiser@InsidethePark.com.

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