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Kovacevic: Tabata's trouble always self-torment

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The Pirates' Jose Tabata watches his three-run double against the Brewers during the third inning Friday, June 1, 2012, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Sunday, June 17, 2012, 11:30 p.m.
 

CLEVELAND -- It wouldn't be easy to top Pedro Alvarez's prodigious transformation this weekend. The kid goes from biggest bust of all time to the next Babe Ruth like no one else in baseball, from 4 for 42 to four home runs in seven at-bats.

Both his bombs Sunday in the 9-5 beating of the Indians were a sight to behold, the balls rocketing out of Progressive Field with such force they had fans scurrying rather than souvenir-hunting.

Good for Alvarez, better for the Pirates.

But I witnessed another transformation here, too, and it might ultimately mean just as much: Jose Tabata smiled.

Tabata has been abysmal, of course. His average is .234. He has two home runs. He's hit the ball out of the infield — outs included — in an absurdly low 30 percent of his plate appearances. He's had brain cramps on the basepaths and in the outfield, too.

If you ask me, Tabata's been the Pirates' biggest disappointment of 2012.

Ask him, and the assessment's about the same.

“It's a bad year,” Tabata was saying at his stall yesterday morning, hours before first pitch. “I don't have any excuses.”

Good for him, because it sure sounds like Clint Hurdle isn't interested in hearing any more.

Six days ago in Baltimore, the manager summoned Tabata into his office, sat him down and cut straight to the punchline: He was tired of watching Tabata tiptoe through games for fear of hurting his long-troublesome hamstring, of “playing to not get hurt.” And he threatened Tabata with a trip to the minors if he didn't knock if off.

“Go play! Just play the game!” Hurdle recalled exhorting Tabata. “Look, you can save yourself from getting hurt right here, or you can save yourself from getting hurt in Indianapolis. Your choice.”

It's to Hurdle's credit that he was so direct, just as it speaks loudly — and sadly — to what's gone really wrong with Tabata: He's always bracing for the worst.

He's not a bad seed. Nor is he some lazy bum. He might not even be a full-blown malingerer. No, his issue long has been that he beats himself up, often to the point of distraction.

Hurdle worded it beautifully: “It's not that he mopes. He just disengages.”

That was all too easy to detect yesterday.

“I'm frustrated,” Tabata said in his still-halting English while staring at the floor. “I'm a .300 hitter. I know that. Everybody knows that. But I don't feel comfortable. This is the first time in my life.”

Tabata then raised his chin to add, “Look at me. You can see it in my face right now. I see it, too, in the mirror. I'm always asking, ‘Why is this happening to me?' But I keep saying, ‘Have faith, Jose. It's going to be better.' ”

Does that sound like someone who doesn't care?

I kept poking, anyway.

Is his health OK?

“I'm fine, 100 percent.”

Right answer.

Is he in good shape, counter to critics inside and outside the team?

“It's not a problem.”

I then asked about a striking scene June 1 in Milwaukee. Tabata was picked off first and scraped his knee while sliding into second. He limped to the dugout, cringing with each step. But once he arrived, no one tended to him. Not even the athletic trainers. He simply sat alone at the end of the bench.

What was that all about?

“Listen, let me tell you something,” Tabata came back, eyes widening. “When things are going good, nobody criticizes. That's baseball. When things are going bad, that's when everybody notices little things. I just need to play better.”

He's right on that first count: Didn't hear anyone complaining about how Alvarez wears his cap all weekend. As for playing better, there's no reason that shouldn't happen. Tabata was a career .297 hitter in the minors, and he's still at .273 in the majors. He's always been eminently capable of driving the ball, usually to right field.

Hurdle sounded heartened that, since their talk in Baltimore, Tabata is 7 for 19.

“I have seen Jose move better than he has all year,” Hurdle said. “I think what I told him finally got through. Maybe to a deep part of him.”

Maybe it did.

Tabata pinch-hit in the Pirates' ninth yesterday and doubled. Drove it, too. To right field.

And in the bottom half, he made what might have been the best throw of his career in nailing Asdrubal Cabrera trying to stretch a hit into a double. The ball met Clint Barmes' glove without a bounce.

The overall turn-and-fire form was reminiscent, actually, of Tabata's lifelong idol.

“Like Clemente, huh?” Tabata said. “No, no, just me.”

That's when he smiled.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at dkovacevic@tribweb.com.

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