03/09/10 5:50 PM ET
Two homers quick remedy for Johnson
DH shows early results of his new swing on Tuesday
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
That was why hitting coach Kevin Long felt his cell phone buzzing with a text message from Johnson late in the day, something that could be read as a digital cry for help: "I was awful. I was embarrassing." All this, after going 0-for-2 with a walk in an exhibition contest.
Long hadn't even seen Johnson's at-bats on Monday, having made the trip down for a split-squad game against the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla., so all he could do was assure Johnson that they'd fix whatever was needed as soon as they got back to the ballpark.
Whatever ironing out needed to be done clearly didn't take long. Johnson belted his first spring homer in the first inning, a solo shot to right-center, and then he banged another off the right-field bleachers in the third inning in the Yankees' 12-7 loss to the Pirates on Tuesday.
"That's the type of guy Nick is. He's hard on himself," Long said. "He's got a little Larry Bowa to him. That's part of that family, which I like. He's going to expect a lot. I think the great ones do that. That part of him, I wouldn't change a thing."
But while Long has no power over Johnson's bloodlines -- his uncle, Bowa, left the Yankees as a coach after the 2007 season -- he is attempting to make important tweaks to his swing. The goal is to cut out the movement of Johnson's back foot in the box, which should help him generate power.
"I'm just trying not to drift, trying to be more direct," Johnson said. "I'm working on turning my back foot. When I don't do it, I slide. That's what I've done pretty much my whole career."
The flaw was something that Long identified shortly after the Yankees signed Johnson to a one-year, $5.75 million contract to serve as their designated hitter, replacing World Series MVP Hideki Matsui. Clearly, there was something that could be done to make Johnson operate more efficiently.
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"When I watched his film and the video, it was striking that his back foot was slipping out and collapsing," Long said. "I thought that was one of the first areas that we'd address."
So Johnson bunked up with Long at his Arizona home for two days over the offseason, going through the paces of a mini-hitting clinic that could open him up to the inside pitch more often.
"I just try to put a good swing on the ball," Johnson said. "I'm not up there trying to hit homers. I just get on base and try to turn that back side, that's all I've been working on."
It's amazing that the problem hasn't been previously corrected, one that leaves Johnson pelting line drives over the third-base dugout when he's going bad. It dates back as far as his first Yankees go-round, a reporter reminded Johnson humorously on Tuesday -- frustrated during batting practice, shortstop Derek Jeter once yelled out, "Pull the ball, Nick!"
"I knew I always had a bad lower half," Johnson said. "It's something that I've never really gotten comfortable. I just use my hands. I watched a lot of film of guys who do it that way, so I'm looking forward to that."
Johnson wasn't brought to the Yankees for his power, hitting a career-high .291 with eight homers and 62 RBIs in 133 games with the Nationals and Marlins last season, but the potential is there, as he showed by clubbing a couple of Charlie Morton pitches over the wall on Tuesday.
The 31-year-old clubbed a career-high 23 homers in 2006 with Washington and it seems reasonable to wonder if a relocation to Yankee Stadium could provide a more welcoming jet stream for a big-bodied left-handed hitter looking to add power to his stroke.
"I don't like to put any numbers on guys, but we know he's a very good hitter," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "You're not sure exactly where people are going to hit home runs, but we really like his bat."
Long said that he does not want Johnson to concern himself with getting pull-happy, but rather, the goal is to make sure that Johnson's swing works efficiently in the right way by Opening Night on April 4.
"It's going to take us to another level," Long said. "We're expecting Nick to obviously get on base and contribute in that area, but I think there's a lot of damage he can do.
"I know there's going to be more power with his backside getting through. He should hit for a higher average. I think it adds a power force in our lineup, another guy that can take the ball out of the ballpark at any time."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.