Kendrick ready for a fresh start

Howie Kendrick hopes the learning experience of 2009 will benefit his approach this season. AP Photo/Eric Risberg

PHOENIX -- The sun shines differently here in the first light of spring. A different shade of gold to mark the promise and potential of new baseball season and the young men who come here to play the game.

On certain players, there is only light. Hitters who seem to strike the ball more crisply than anyone else, more often than anyone else, with an effortless grace that seems innate.

Howie Kendrick left this Valley of the Sun last April basking in that golden light, having sizzled through the spring.

Teammates started telling reporters he was ready to win a batting title now, not at some ephemeral time in the future. The Angels started dreaming of the day their young second baseman would hit 20 home runs in a season.

It all came so naturally -- his swing, his smile, his grace -- you couldn't imagine it any other way.

But unlike this tranquil part of Central Arizona, the weather in baseball defies prediction. Warm and sunny turns to cloudy and gray suddenly and cruelly without cause.

By mid-June, Kendrick was reeling. His sizzling spring had fizzled into a pool of frustration. His batting average dipped and dodged and darted around .200, his confidence cracked, his smile looked worn. Nobody talked about batting titles anymore.

"It started out mentally with maybe him pressing a little bit and losing a little bit of confidence, but afterwards, after he tried to change some things to try to regain the feel he'd had, it seeped into his mechanics and we had to unwind all that,'' Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

Scioscia's choice of words has two meanings. Unwind all that was going wrong, but also unwind some of the outsized expectations and projections for Kendrick that were exacerbating his frustrations.

The Angels sent him down to Triple-A Salt Lake, where he was instructed to: breathe, relax, start over, work on his game and try and recapture what had made him so great in the first place ... in no particular order of course, and as fast as he possibly could.

For a player who had hit .322 in 2007 and .306 in 2008 after four consecutive seasons of hitting .367 or better in the minors, it was a giant demotion.

And yet, Kendrick took it in stride.

"I was anxious to see how he was going to be that first day," said Angels third baseman Brandon Wood, who was in Salt Lake when Kendrick was sent down.

"He's a friend, so I know him. And I could tell that he was still upbeat and positive, he understood that he came down here to get some work in and it wasn't the end of his career or anything.

"He didn't treat it like a rehab assignment either. He was in the cage every day, working his tail off. I think the whole thing was just to go down and get some work in and let him relax so he could get all the other things out of his head that were causing him not to be himself."

When he returned to Anaheim a few weeks later, he started hitting like Howie Kendrick again, batting .351 from July 4 until the end of the season.

But all was not the same. He didn't play every day, didn't come to the park knowing whether he'd be in the starting lineup or not.

Kendrick tried to take that in stride too, and see the entire experience as an opportunity to grow. He'd always needed to improve his pitch selection and plate discipline. So while he had recaptured his swing in Salt Lake, he still had room to improve.

"This game is definitely humbling," Kendrick said. "Last year, I think it was just one of those years where I was having a rough time and I got outside myself. I tried to do too too much and it hurt me a lot. I lost my confidence. But getting sent down was probably the best thing that could've happened to me.

"It put the fire back in me to get back. It made me mature and gain knowledge, which hopefully I'll show this year."

In the winter, he took another mental break. Playing golf in and around his offseason home here in Phoenix, disengaging from baseball as much as possible.

Unwinding and uncoiling from the most tumultuous season of his young career.

When he reported to spring training a couple of weeks ago, he felt refreshed, and a little wiser.

Life looks different when you've stepped out of the light for a while. Baseball looks different.

It's too simplistic to say he appreciates where he is more. There was never a doubt Kendrick belonged in the majors or deserved all the praise so readily heaped upon him.

Likewise, there was never any doubt he'd worked hard for what he'd gotten in baseball, spending more time thinking about baseball and refining that sweet swing of his than most people spend on any one thing in a lifetime.

It's just that sometimes it's good for the weather to change without warning. To face adversity and have to claw your way back. It means you can do it again if you have to.

"I never really thought about it as much because I've always been able to play," Kendrick said, when asked about working on his pitch selection and approach at the plate.

"But once you get at the major league level, these guys are really good so you have to pick and choose which pitches you want to hit because you're not going to be guaranteed to even get a mistake in every at-bat.

"I'm still figuring it out. Still fine-tuning it."

So yes, the light here in Arizona is different this time of year. Warmly reflecting off the red-dirt buttes that dot this desert landscape and embracing a new group of budding stars who seem to strike the ball more crisply than others holding the same bat.

But baseball isn't always played under the sun. Things can get foggy in the time it takes to drive from Arizona to Anaheim at the end of spring.

If it ever happens again, Kendrick will know how to find his way back.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLos Angeles.com.