Francoeur ready to face pressures
Adjusted stance -- and smack talk -- has right fielder prepared
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- It might take Jeff Francoeur a few more weeks to truly get comfortable with his new offensive approach. But with assistance from Tiger Woods, the Braves right fielder has already prepared himself to play under pressure and amid smack talk.
After Francoeur opened the back nine at Isleworth Country Club with consecutive birdies on March 4, Woods asked, "Who are you?"
Francoeur quickly responded, "I just wanted to see how the world's No. 1 golfer reacts with his back up against the wall."
This prompted Woods to reply, "Yeah, well I was wondering how much time you plan to spend playing in Mississippi this year?"
With this, Francoeur could only smirk and slice his next drive. Woods had successfully manipulated the Braves outfielder's psyche and simultaneously frustrated their other playing partner, John Smoltz, who knew the accomplished golfer is at his best when provided the opportunity to test his mental fortitude.
"I think Tiger is the only guy who can get into Smoltz's head, and that bothers Smoltzie, because he always wants to beat him so bad," Francoeur said.
While registering four birdies and carding a 76, Francoeur wasn't able to conquer Woods, who shot a 68 on his home course. But while taking advantage of his fourth opportunity to play with the golfing legend, the 25-year-old outfielder was able to escape from a baseball scene that provided little enjoyment last year.
Coming off a frustrating 2008 season, during which he hit rock bottom with a brief July demotion to Double-A Mississippi, Francoeur has spent the past four months attempting to refine his swing and make any other adjustments that decrease the odds of him reliving last year's nightmare.
"It's going to be fun as we continue to go through the season, because I'm going to have a lot more fun playing baseball," said Francoeur, who hit .239 with 11 homers and a .653 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) last year.
Committed to turning things around, Francoeur adopted a new stance in early November and, fortunately, found the patience to stick with it -- even when he recorded just two hits in his first 18 Grapefruit League at-bats. Entering Friday, he'd recorded three hits in his previous four at-bats.
"He really has looked better," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He's starting to look confident and comfortable at the plate."
Over the past week, Francoeur has delivered two sacrifice flies to the opposite field and received complimentary remarks from Lance Berkman and Ryan Howard, who have also noticed that he looks more comfortable with his adjusted stance.
"I like where I'm at, and now it's just matter of taking the next few weeks to get better and really get my timing down," Francoeur said.
Placing a greater focus on shortening his swing when he falls behind in the count, Francoeur still hadn't struck out in the 29 plate appearances -- includes games against Venezuela and Panama -- he'd registered entering Friday.
"I think the thing that excites me the most is that I haven't struck out yet," Francoeur said. "That's a huge plus for me. I've been down with an 0-2 count three or four times and I haven't panicked. Last year, I would have panicked and swung at a bad pitch or rolled over a pitch and hit a dribbler to third base."
After falling behind with an 0-2 count against Kyle Kendrick on Wednesday, Francoeur delivered a sacrifice fly to right field. This might not have happened last year, when his shattered confidence made him even more susceptible to pitchers who often fed off his overaggressive approach.
Francoeur, who had recorded 100-RBI seasons in 2006 and '07, collected just four sacrifice flies last year. In addition, his run-producing struggles were also evidenced by the fact that he hit .192 with runners in scoring position and .182 (6-for-33) with the bases loaded.
"Last year, I think I was too concerned with getting two or three guys in at one time, instead of just trying to get the guy in from third [base]," Francoeur said. "I think if I continue to focus on just getting the guy from third home, I'll be more successful and I'll end up driving more guys in. "
While driving in at least 100 runs during both of his first two full Major League seasons, Francoeur proved that he's capable of being a solid run producer. But in the process, he battled inconsistencies that led him to constantly alter his stance from game to game and, sometimes, at-bat to at-bat.
Knowing this provides better understanding about how Francoeur could hit .260 with 29 homers in 2006 and .293 with 19 homers a season later.
Armed with the determination to stick to his new approach this year, Francoeur believes he'll encounter far fewer inconsistencies -- and force Woods to develop some new smack-talk material that doesn't reference that forgettable trip to the Minors last year.
"I feel more dangerous, and I also feel more comfortable," Francoeur said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.