CLEVELAND -- Travis Hafner looked completely overmatched. It was only one swing, but the hack produced on the first pitch Hafner received from A's lefty Jordan Norberto on Friday night was truncated, feeble and nowhere close to flirting with contact.
Norberto followed with a second straight slider, and again the veteran Indians designated hitter was fooled. Hafner was suddenly down two strikes with two outs in the ninth inning and, given the nature of his first two swings, a third out seemed inevitable.
Then, it happened. Hafner assumed control of the confrontation.
"When he gets to two strikes," Indians manager Manny Acta said, "there's no panic."
Hafner watched as Norberto bounced his third straight slider in the dirt. The pitcher tried a four-seam fastball and, still, Hafner did not bite. After two more breaking balls missed the mark, Hafner turned, flipped his bat to the side, unstrapped and tossed away his arm guard, and took his base.
It was vintage Hafner, and Cleveland has seen a lot of that early on this season. Healthier than he has been in years, the slugger is enjoying life with no restrictions and providing his classic blend of patience and power in the heart of the Tribe's lineup.
Asked how much it helps to have Hafner so locked in, teammate Shelley Duncan's eyes widened.
"Tons," Duncan said. "You can tell it puts a lot of pressure on the pitcher when you've got someone in the middle of the lineup like that raking. And then it also gives us a boost."
Heading into Monday's off-day, Hafner was hitting .357 with a pair of home runs, three doubles and eight RBIs through 12 games for the Indians. The left-handed-hitting slugger had nearly as many walks (12) as hits (15), and he was pacing the American League with a robust .509 on-base percentage.
On April 15 in Kansas City, Hafner turned on a pitch from Royals starter Luis Mendoza and sent it arcing over the right-field stands at Kauffman Stadium, where it came crashing down into a restaurant. The monstrous blast was measured at 456 feet, though the website Hittrackeronline.com declared its true distance at 481 feet -- the longest home run in the Majors so far this season.
Jokes were made that Hafner's home run ordered a round of drinks upon reaching the bar.
Hafner closed out the Tribe's recent road trip by reaching base in 14 of his final 18 plate appearances, including a stretch of seven consecutive times on base from Thursday-Friday. His ninth-inning walk against Norberto in Friday's 4-3 win in Oakland was his fifth time on base in that game, during which he collected one hit, walked three times and was hit by a pitch.
Hafner knew precisely what he wanted to do when he settled into the box to take on the lefty.
"In that situation, it looked like he was really using his fastball a lot to all the lefties in our lineup," Hafner explained. "So that's kind of what I was expecting. I swung at two breaking balls out of the zone, and then once he got to two strikes, it's just making sure you're seeing the ball, staying back a little bit, kind of shortening everything up.
"I think it's really important for hitters to have a good two-strike approach. You can sit on pitches early in the count. You can take chances. And if you do swing at two breaking balls in the dirt, it's not the end of the world."
It all sounds so simple.
That no-fear mindset is what served Hafner well in his prime seasons from 2004-07, when he earned the moniker "Pronk" and was a yearly threat to launch 30 homers, drive in 100 runs and draw 100 walks. It was during the 2007 campaign that Cleveland handed Hafner a four-year, $57 million extension that runs through this season.
That deal is set to expire, and the Indians do not plan on picking up the $13 million club option in place for the 2013 season. So with his future with the organization in doubt and his body feeling the best it has in years after an unfortunate array of injuries, Hafner is up to his old tricks.
"It's just the healthiest that he's been," Acta said. "Also, starting from Spring Training up until today, he's had no limitations whatsoever. He's been able to be locked in all the way from Spring Training. He hasn't had a bad week dating back to when we started playing games in March."
Acta is in his third season as Cleveland's manager, and this is the first time that the team's medical staff has not presented him with a recommended schedule for handling Hafner's work load or playing time. That has given Acta the freedom to keep Hafner in the lineup on an everyday basis, and it has allowed the DH to maintain a rhythm with his daily routine.
To Hafner, that is what has made the biggest difference early on this year.
"It's just a matter of really just being healthy," Hafner said. "I was able to hit more this spring than I have in the last few years. I just started the season in a good spot. So much of hitting is just being able to practice a lot. It's just getting to where it's as simple as possible, and when you're up at the plate, you don't have to really think about anything other than how the pitcher is going to pitch to you.
"[In the last few years] if I hit too much, I was shot for the game. Basically in the past, it was kind of, 'Get loose and go play the game.' Now, I've been able to practice a normal amount, and you know, you can play five or six games in a row and it's a lot easier to get in a rhythm like that."
The result has been a Hafner that resembles the one of old.
"It's not a secret," Acta said. "When he's going good, he makes everybody else in our lineup better."