Jon Nelson: Have Bat Will Travel

Some players struggle when they are asked to change positions. Inland Empire's Jon Nelson has went the other way, exploding this year as an outfielder after a strikeout-filled 2003 campaign at first base. InsidethePark's Jonathan Bianchet talked to the tall 66ers outfielder recently to hear about Nelson's feelings on adjusting to the outfield.

Judging a fly ball is not as easy as it looks. Especially when you have played most of your time at first base.

This is the situation Inland Empire 66ers leftfielder Jon Nelson has had to deal with this year.

After only playing 12 games in left field at the end of the 2003 season at Wisconsin and being used predominantly as a first baseman, he's made the outfield his home with the 66ers.

In preparation for the adventure he would face to 2004, Nelson, a Utah native who stands 6-foot-5, headed down Arizona a little early to participate in the Arizona Instructional League.

"I'm still learning bits and pieces of left field but structurally the program was able to get me accustomed to the new position," said Nelson. "I really felt comfortable coming into this season"

So comfortable, in fact, Nelson has made more than a few spectacular play this season. One of which robbed a double as he crashed into the wall and prevented the go-ahead runner from scoring in the ninth inning. Although he has made sensational plays, he is also making the routine ones as well. Nelson has only made two errors at his new position, which is a big improvement from what he did last year at Wisconsin. With the Timber Rattlers last year, he committed 21 errors at first base.

One technique he has had to learn quickly is taking the right angle to the ball.

"Your first angle better be the right one," said Nelson, who got that tip from former Seattle Mariner right fielder, Jay Buhner. "If you take the wrong angle, you don't have much time to make the adjustment, especially in left."

There is some bad news. All the running he has had to do in left field has caused Nelson to miss 11 games due to a strained abdominal muscle, which had been getting progressively worse every day as it was hurting every time he ran. Thanks to 12 days off, Nelson, who was better day-by-day, returned to the 66ers lineup last Tuesday against Lake Elsinore. In the his first two games back, Nelson appeared as a DH and went 2-9 at the plate with five strikeouts.

The injury was unfortunate for Nelson, who had been not only playing a solid left field for the first-place 66ers but also had been hitting his best this season.

Nelson began the year slowly as he was hitting a mere .184 after the first 13 games without a home run and with just four runs batted in. That all changed in a hurry. In Nelson's next 18 gamed leading up to the injury, the left field giant hit .373 with four home runs and 16 RBI, climbing his batting average over 100 points. Heading into May 27, Nelson was hitting .298 with four home runs, 20 RBI and 23 runs scored.

"There has been some tough times, but that is baseball," said Nelson. "You have to minimize those times as much as possible."

Known to be a powerful hitter throughout his career, Nelson hit 16 home runs and drove in 91, the third most in the Midwest League, last year. He also hit 38 doubles, tied for the most in the league.

But Nelson's power last year was compensated for a lack of average.

Nelson struck out an unbelievable 168 times and had just 16 walks, a terrible ratio. In his career coming into the 2004 season, Nelson has struck out 264 times, whiffing nine times for every walk he's drawn. During last year, Nelson struck out in 25 straight games with 37 strikeouts during that stretch. In each month, Nelson struck out at least 30 times. However, this year has been better for the free-swinging right-hander.

In April, he struck out only 17 times, and has just 33 for this season.

The reason? Keeping it simple.

"Last year I was also making adjustments nearly every day," said Nelson, a 26th round pick in the 2001 June draft. "This year I'm just trying to be an eye at the plate and hit everything up the middle."

So far so good for the new everyday left fielder for the 66ers, as his batting average is up 29 points from where it was at the end of last season. While he is finding comfort at a new position each day, one thing is for sure - Nelson just wants to hit.

"Learning a new position makes it that much better for me," said Nelson. "I'll play anywhere as long as I have a bat to swing."

Even if it means judging fly balls in the outfield.

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