Extra Bases: When to worry about Fielder?

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Texas Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder passed the 100th at-bat -- and the 120th plate appearance -- plateau on Wednesday night, just as April ended.

What's the significance of that? Maybe nothing. But players and coaches usually stress waiting until someone hits that 100 at-bat mark before looking too deeply at trends.

You don't have to dig down very far to figure out that Fielder is struggling mightily. April now ranks as one of his worst months ever as a big league player. And this is his ninth full season in the majors.

There has to be some concern. It's one thing not to hit the ball hard for a few weeks. But this has been a month, and Fielder is hitting mainly ground balls.

The deep drives and smashes the other way -- things that Fielder has done in his stellar big league career -- haven't happened. At least not yet.

If there's one thing for the Rangers and their fans to take solace in, it's that Fielder has had rough months before and bounced back. Or, as Texas manager Ron Washington likes to say, he has a track record.

And on Wednesday, Fielder was one of the few bright spots. He had a single in the first, then a walk, and he hit a hard out to center field. But he's shown flashes before, and they've yet to turn into streaks of solid production.

The hit guaranteed he'd finish April above .200, but his .206 average is the lowest for any month of his career. He had two homers and nine RBIs. His OPS was below .700, only the second month in his career when that's been the case. It would have been lower if not for his 17 walks, including a major-league-leading nine intentional free passes.

But that OPS was 84th among qualified AL hitters going into Wednesday's action. Yep, 84th. Only nine qualified players in the AL had a lower batting average than Fielder as play began on Wednesday.

"If there was something to do to make it all go away, it would have been done the third game in the season," Fielder said before Wednesday's game.

In Fielder's final two at-bats against a subtle A's shift on Tuesday, he hit the ball twice to third base, getting a single on one of the hard-hit balls. Was that a change of strategy? Nope.

"I’m not trying to; it’s just where the ball went," Fielder said. "I’m trying to hit it hard and see what happens."

Fielder doesn't seem like the type of personality to overanalyze things when he's slumping, which is probably an advantage in that perhaps he can let the bad thoughts go. He looked at video, mainly of what he's doing right, and continues to work in the cages and at batting practice.

"I’ve felt all right here and there," Fielder said. "It comes and goes. I guess that’s part of the game. I’m trying to go up there and get a pitch to hit hard.

"If I get a hit, it feels good. I feel good, and all I can control is how I feel. I’d like to have 20 homers by now, but I don’t. It will definitely come around. I have no choice but to stay patient. I feel good. I’m going to keep playing hard and see what happens. That’s all I can do."

That's true. But right now, Fielder doesn't seem to be driving the ball with any consistency. Most teams employ a shift against him, expecting him to be an extreme pull hitter. And he's hit too many ground balls right into that shift. Going into Wednesday's game, Fielder had hit into 44 ground-ball outs (of his 83 outs on balls in play). The powerful hits over the shift or even the bullets through it haven't come often at all.

"I’m trying to drive the ball," Fielder said. "I haven’t done it much, but that's the goal. Wherever it goes, it goes. There’s no GPS on the bat. I’m not that good to try to manipulate the ball. I’m trying to get a good pitch to hit and hit it hard."

That's what he'll keep doing, either at the No. 3 or No. 4 spot in the order. Where he bats is based on whether the Rangers are facing a lefty or a righty. If it's a southpaw, Washington wants to get two right-handed hitters between left-handed batters Shin-Soo Choo and Fielder. If it's a right-hander, Fielder bats third.

"Prince is not going to be going up there worried about hitting the ball off the skin on the left side," Washington said. "He’s going to go over that stuff. He’s going to go through that stuff, and he’s going to start beating that shift. He’s going to go through it, over it and around it when he starts to get going."

Others in the offense have done enough to keep the Rangers in solid position this month. But as April ended, the club experienced a power outage. The Rangers have gone homerless in six straight games and have just 14 home runs this season, the second-fewest in MLB.

That's where Fielder was supposed to help this team. But the slugger has just two home runs after averaging 35 a season in his eight full big league campaigns. He's hitting just 5-for-28 with runners in scoring position.

He's not expected to carry this team, but he is needed to carry his load. So far, that hasn't happened.

Fielder and the Rangers hope a day off Thursday, a trip to Anaheim and the fact that it's not April anymore can help change that.