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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Pirates manager Clint Hurdle remembers the way Garrett Atkins tore up the National League for four straight seasons with the Colorado Rockies.

"He was one of the premier run-producers in the league," said Hurdle, who managed the Rockies when Atkins broke into the majors.

From 2005-08, Atkins hit a combined .301 with 88 homers and 419 RBI. In 2006, he led NL third basemen with 120 RBI.

Over the past two years, though, Atkins' stats plunged off a cliff. He played 44 games last season for Baltimore and hit .214 with one homer and nine RBI.

Atkins, 31, is in Pirates camp as a non-roster invitee, trying to win a job as a backup corner infielder.

"What I see now is a man who understands he came up short," Hurdle said. "He wasn't the offensive player he had been before. He got in some bad habits, some mechanical things that just didn't work."

No one in baseball knows Atkins' swing better than Hurdle, who excelled last year as the Texas Rangers' hitting coach.

"He knows the mentality of a hitter, and he knows swings," Atkins said. "It's nice to come in to a new team, know the manager right away and have him know you. It helps to see a familiar face and kind of know how camp is going to be, what his style is."

It took only a few minutes of watching Atkins work in the cage for Hurdle to pick out the flaws.

"We talked about his approach," Hurdle said. "Getting ready, foot down on time, getting his hands clear from his body."

For whatever reason — overeager• overconfident• — Atkins began relying too much on having his arms do all the work.

"I also wasn't really using my lower half in my swing, and it zapped some of my power," Atkins said. "I'm getting back to using my whole body. I'm trying to have a strong base, see the ball well and see the whole field. That's what I did in the past."

Atkins' slump intensified last year during his three-month stint with the Orioles, during which he appeared in just 30 games.

"When you lose playing time, it makes it even harder to turn it around and it makes your numbers look even worse," Atkins said. "I don't know how many at-bats I'll get here, but I'll do whatever Clint asks of me — backup at third and first, pinch-hit a little bit, whatever I can do."

Atkins' comeback remains a work in progress. In 16 games this spring, he is hitting .133 with four RBI. He went 0 for 3 Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Although he hasn't played third base much since 2009, Atkins looked fine there yesterday. However, Andy Marte also has been sharp defensively and is batting .391, which might give him an edge on Atkins for the final spot on the Pirates' bench.

Additional Information:

Good Atkins/Bad Atkins

2005-08 (Rockies): 607 games, 2337 at-bats, 348 runs, 704 hits, 146 doubles, 6 triples, 88 home runs, 419 runs batted in, .301 average, .846 OPS

2009-10 (Rockies, Orioles): 170 games, 494 at-bats, 42 runs, 110 hits, 19 doubles, 1 triple, 10 homers, 57 runs batted in, .223 average, .625 OPS

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