Tiny tweaks can unlock career years

It is rare, it seems, for an NBA player to find his shooting touch in his late 20s or early 30s, turning him from an eight-points-a-game guy to averaging 20 a night. In baseball, it happens frequently, which speaks to the skillful nature and degree of difficulty of the game. In baseball, players find it and lose it faster than in any other sport. Here are five who found it this year.

Jon Garland, White Sox

After winning exactly 12 games in each of the last three years, Garland entered Wednesday with an 8-0 record and a 2.41 ERA. He is the first White Sox pitcher since John Whitehead in 1935 to win his first eight starts of the season, and the first since LaMarr Hoyt in 1984 to win 10 consecutive starts. His turnaround is the result of several factors, including refining his changeup. He also has followed the lead of staff ace Mark Buehrle, who works quickly and throws strikes. Garland averaged 3.5 walks per nine innings in his three previous seasons in the big leagues; this year, he has 10 in 59 2/3 innings.

What's often forgotten about Garland is that he's only 25 years old – he just seems to have been around much longer. He was the 10th overall pick by the Cubs in the 1997 draft, then inexplicably was sent to the White Sox in July 1998 for reliever Matt Karchner. "When he's out on the mound, it looks like he doesn't care," one scout said. "But he's a great competitor."

Brady Clark, Brewers

He is 32 years old, a study in perseverance and work. "Every day, he's the first guy in the cage," Brewers third-base coach Rich Donnelly said. "I'd get to the park at 7 o'clock in the morning every day in spring training, and he was already hitting."

It has paid off. Through Tuesday, he was hitting .350 (.431 in May) with five home runs and only 12 strikeouts in 160 at-bats. He stands so close to the plate, someday he's going to get hit by a pitch that's a strike. But he will do anything to get on base, and anything to stay in the big leagues. He was signed as a non-drafted free agent in 1996 by the Reds, but was released three months later. He was re-signed by the Reds, then traded to the Mets, but was waived less than a year later. The Brewers signed Clark in 2003. This is the first chance he has had to play regularly. He has become Milwaukee's leadoff hitter, replacing Scott Podsednik. Clark has become one of the National League's best defensive center fielders.

"I'm not blessed with five tools," Clark said. "Whenever my career is over, I don't want to have any regrets. I just want to know that every time I stepped on the field, I did my best."

Bruce Chen, Orioles

He holds the major-league record for most teams played for – eight – by age 28, prompting him to say last year that he was "getting pretty good at packing a suitcase." But this year, Chen might have found a place for a while in Baltimore. He won the fifth starter's job at the end of spring training, but has been anything but a fifth starter. Through Tuesday, he was 4-2 with a 3.38 ERA and a .246 average against in 45 1/3 innings.

The difference? "The changeup," Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said. "He had one before this year, but he really has a feel for it now." Chen always has had a feel for pitching, but Miller's influence – throw strikes, work fast and change speeds – has been vital.

David Dellucci, Rangers

Texas is his third team in the last three years, but at age 31, he has solidified the leadoff spot (against right-handed pitching, at least) by getting on base for the bombers behind him. Entering Wednesday, Dellucci was hitting .272 but had an on-base percentage of .477, thanks in part to 36 walks in only 92 at-bats. Plus, he is slugging .554. Part of his success stems from his finally having the security of a multiyear contract.

"He's relaxed up there now," Rangers manager Buck Showalter said. "He always could hit, but he is really finishing at-bats. And he got his eyes fixed over the winter. That has helped."

Shea Hillenbrand, Blue Jays

"Wait a second," one scout said. "That guy has always been a good hitter." Indeed. Last year, he hit .310 with 80 RBI. He was a .288 hitter entering this season, but through Tuesday, he was hitting .357, third highest in the American League. Hillenbrand, 29, had more hits in April (39) than any hitter in the major leagues and has eight games this year of three or more hits. Hillenbrand is helped, the scout said, by playing more at first base than third base. "He had trouble there defensively," he said.

Hillenbrand also is helped by the Toronto lineup, which has a nice blend of right-handed and left-handed hitters. The Red Sox traded him a few years ago partly because he wasn't a walk guy (only six this year), but in his case, a hit has been much better than a walk this year.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.