Dunn plans to take a swing at past instructions

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 31, 2004

SARASOTA, Fla. - Swing at more pitches. No, wait, take more pitches. Bat cleanup and drive in runs. Hit leadoff and get on base. Do one thing. On second thought, do the total opposite.

Confused? Imagine what it's been like inside Adam Dunn's brain.

For the last two years, the Cincinnati Reds' promising young power hitter has been dealt an identity crisis. The club wasn't sure what it wanted him to be, and it showed whenever he came to bat.

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He made himself an easy out.

''Oh, yeah, about three times a game,'' Dunn said. ''I'd be thinking so much and see a fastball down the middle and foul it back instead of being ready to hit it.''

Now, he's ready.

Dunn has spent spring training emptying his mind and filling his hitting line. He leads the Reds with six homers and is batting .422, best among the regulars.

The 6-foot-6, 240-pound outfielder is hitting the way he did in 2001, when he made it to the majors and immediately earned a reputation as one of the game's up-and-coming power hitters.

He hit 14 homers that August, the most ever by a National League rookie in one month. Already, he was in Mark McGwire territory - Big Mac hit 15 in one month as a rookie with Oakland.

Then, confusion set in.

Dunn, 24, rarely swings at a bad pitch - he walked 128 times in 2002, his first full season. With Ken Griffey Jr. hurt again, the Reds needed home runs, not walks, out of their biggest batter.

Dunn was told to swing at pitches off the plate in 2002. He did - and struck out a club-record 170 times in 158 games. He finished with 26 homers.

Swinging away didn't work.

''That's part of my game, getting on base,'' Dunn said. ''My mind-set when they told me (to swing more) was, 'OK, I just need to swing at the first thing that's close.' That's what I did, and that's not me.''

His direction changed abruptly once again last season, when manager Bob Boone decided to let him draw walks as the majors' biggest leadoff hitter. That unusual experiment didn't work, either. Dunn hit only .215 with 27 homers before hurting his thumb in mid-August.

''I don't know how to hit leadoff,'' said Dunn, who had never done it before.

Boone was fired in July, and the new regime has taken a different approach. Hitting coach Chris Chambliss had worked with Dunn on clearing the clutter from his mind and being himself.

''He's not leading off anymore,'' Chambliss said Tuesday. ''It looks like he's going to hit in the middle of the lineup somewhere, and that's all we have to deal with now. You learn from everything and you move on.''

Dunn is eager to do it. He holds no grudge for the way he was handled, noting the club was just trying to fill its needs by moving him around. He's comfortable now that he has stopped trying to be something different at the plate.

''I'm kind of not really thinking at all,'' Dunn said. ''I'm focusing on left-center and making sure my body is going that way and whatever happens, happens.''

For the most part, good things have happened. He's hitting .472 in his last 15 games and is on an 8-for-12 tear that includes three homers and a three-hit game.

Manager Dave Miley notices his confidence is back.

''I've got a good feeling it's going to carry over for him,'' Miley said. ''He feels real good about himself. He's locked in.''

He's also finally finding some good things to say about himself after two years of self-deprecating humor. Asked to describe himself as a hitter, he reflexively answered, ''Messed up.''

Then, he caught himself.

''Well, I'm not messed up now,'' he said. ''I think I'm actually starting to get back to where I was a couple of years ago. I'm feeling good. The approach is there. The last couple of years, I was terrible.''