NEW BRITAIN - With James Skelton sitting on first base, Michael Crouse stepped into the batter’s box and waited for Dennis O’Grady’s pitch.
As the ball made its way to the plate, Crouse loaded up his bat and swung. Not even a minute later, he strolled into second with an easy double, setting the New Britain Bees up with runners on second and third and no outs in the fifth inning in the backend of their doubleheader against the Long Island Ducks on Sunday.
Comfortability in baseball is important, but sometimes change can make quite the difference.
It was back on April 28 when Bees manager Stan Cliburn decided to switch up his lineup and move a struggling Crouse from the bottom of the order up to the No. 2 spot. The move has paid dividends for both team and player.
“Putting Crouse in that two hole has been night and day,” New Britain designated hitter and hitting coach Craig Maddox said. “He feels the guys around him and it raises his level of play. He knows in that position, he needs to get on base with [Jovan] Rosa, myself and [Conor] Bierfeldt coming up behind him. Our job is to drive those guys in and it’s good to see.”
It was just last season when Crosue hit .291 with 10 home runs and notched 60 RBI in 105 games with the Bees. But in the six games to start the season, the outfielder managed just one base hit in 18 at-bats with 10 strikeouts.
In the 17 games since batting behind leadoff man Skelton, Crouse has gone 20-for-67 at the plate - a .299 average - with three doubles, two triples, three home runs, eight RBI and nine runs scores. He has also stolen five bases. In New Britain’s four-game series against the Ducks this past weekend, the center fielder went 5-for-15 with a double, triple and two RBI.
During this stretch, Crouse has raised his average from .048 to .235, his slugging percentage from .310 to .424 and his on-base percentage from .190 to .316.
For Crouse, the increase in production comes down to one main thing - pitchers willing to pitch to him instead of around him.
“I view myself as a speed guy with some power and you see a little bit different of a pitch style because you have a guy like Rosa protecting myself and Maddox behind him,” Crouse said. “They’re not going to want me on base and steal second to get to Rosa so they’re going to have to pitch to me with a better quality of pitching.”
In other words, the middle of the order has offered Crouse a sort of protection. Even though the 26-year-old has power, opposing pitchers would rather avoid throwing to Rosa, Maddox and Bierfeldt at 3, 4 and 5.
“If I’m in the eight hole for instance with [Jake] McGuiggan behind me, he’s not going to be the biggest home run threat," Crouse said. "They can pitch around me to get to him. He’s put up some home runs this year, but he’s not that guy, whereas if they pitch around me to get to Rosa, he’s going to drive the gap or hit a home run. Same thing with Maddox. They’re going to want to beat me a little more and not get on base.”
With the Bees having wrapped up their best series of the season and about to start an important four-game set with the Bridgeport Bluefish, Crouse will be a main component to any success the team has offensively moving forward.
“It really does matter where these guys hit in the lineup and are comfortable,” Maddox said. “Ever since we moved Crouse up to the two spot, he’s looked like a different hitter. He’s looked comfortable in the box where in the first couple series he looked like he was searching a little bit. It’s a good sign for us.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @DavidGlovach