Reimold begins to put things back together
Achilles injury, sophomore slump sent slugger to Triple-A
NORFOLK, Va. -- There are moments like Saturday night when you forget that Nolan Reimold's swing had ever been in hiding, his power ever a question. The ball seems to leap off his bat with a purpose in that seventh inning, not stopping until it's safely over the left-field fence, a wall that serves as a smug barrier of lesser hits and balls smacked off the end of the bat. Reimold's blast, as effortless as it appears, is neither of those.
But as Reimold -- last season's American League-leading rookie in homers, total bases and slugging percentage when his year ended in mid-September -- turns the corner on third base, something is off. The 26-year-old isn't wearing the Orioles' black and orange, and he isn't greeted by the cheers of thousands at Baltimore's Camden Yards. Instead, Reimold is circling the bases at Norfolk's Harbor Park, putting on a power display for the cozy crowd on hand to watch Baltimore's Triple-A affiliate. And the look on his face isn't pure joy, but rather unbridled relief, as a Minor League batting average that took 18 games to break .150 continues to climb its way back into respectability. The same can be said of its owner.
"This has been the worst six months of my life," Reimold said in a rare interview inside Norfolk's home clubhouse. "I never imagined I'd be here."
He is hesitant to talk about how his season spiraled back here, to the Minor League life of overnight bus trips and half-filled stadiums that he left behind -- seemingly for good -- when the Orioles recalled him on May 14, 2009. Reimold hit .279 with 15 homers and 45 RBIs before undergoing season-ending left Achilles tendon surgery on Sept. 23, a long and slow rehab process that caused him to limp through most of Spring Training. Fueled by the desire to avoid starting the season on the disabled list and earn an Opening Day nod in left field over the eventual starter, Felix Pie, Reimold and his lack of mobility didn't make for much competition.
When Pie hit the 60-day DL (upper back strain) in mid-April, the Orioles signed journeyman Corey Patterson to a Minor League deal for outfield insurance. Patterson, who was recalled to the big league club on May 12, thought he would serve as part of a platoon for the right-handed-hitting Reimold. Instead, he replaced him, with former manager Dave Trembley saying the organization couldn't let a guy as important as Reimold continue to "fail at the rate he was failing" in the Major Leagues.
Although not unwarranted, the trip to Triple-A was still a shock for Reimold, who was named AL Rookie of the Month in June 2009 and had the baseball world excited about his power and potential. Now, the former second-round pick -- who has also had personal problems that twice caused him to leave Norfolk -- must prove that last year wasn't a flash in the pan, but rather a precursor of better things to come.
"I don't have any doubts that I belong up there," said Reimold, who credits former Oriole Brady Anderson's recent visit to Norfolk with helping him straighten out his swing. "I think it's finally starting to all come together."
As recently as a few weeks ago, it still felt like it was all falling apart. The dreaded sophomore slump, the lingering effects of surgery and the whispers in the organization that perhaps Reimold wasn't mentally tough enough took their collective toll as Reimold hit .122 in his first 14 games with the Tides.
Norfolk's hitting coach Richie Hebner said Reimold was lost, pressing at the plate and changing batting stances daily in an effort to get back to Baltimore immediately.
"He had some success up there, and now he's down here and he's seeing guys bypass him," Hebner said of Reimold, who hit .215 with six homers and 18 RBIs in 50 first-half games. "[Josh] Bell got sent up, [Scott] Moore got sent up. And he's thinking, 'What the heck am I doing here?'
"He [was] down on himself, no question. But you can't feel sorry for yourself. Time will go by, and all of a sudden, you will be a forgotten guy in this organization. I hope he isn't. I know Andy MacPhail and those other guys in the organization hope he isn't."
Both MacPhail, president of baseball operations, and John Stockstill, director of player development, said the organization hasn't given up on Reimold, who has just more than a year of big league experience.
"What we would like to see [in Triple-A] is a sustained period where he produced more offense. Recently he's shown a little bit of that," MacPhail said of Reimold, who hit .257 (9-for-35) with two homers and five RBIs in the last nine games of the first half.
"I wouldn't say that [we aren't concerned]. We're hopeful he can get back to where he was, and we've seen some signs recently."
MacPhail said he expects to see Reimold back in Baltimore at some point this season, although the organization isn't putting a timetable on his return. It's equally unclear how much Reimold's health has contributed to his poor performance, or whether it was a case of failure to make adjustments and the lack of confidence that comes with such severe struggles.
"It's probably all of the above," Stockstill said. "The Achilles has more effect than people think. They think they are healthy, they are not. It's a timing mechanism. [Reimold] has widened his stance [at the plate]. People tend to downplay the everyday effects of that injury."
Phillies infielder Greg Dobbs ruptured his Achilles running the bases in the second game of the 2003 season for Double-A San Antonio. He did not play again until a year later, a full 12-month recovery -- without any setbacks -- that Dobbs described as a long, hard road back.
"I can completely empathize [with Reimold]," Dobbs said. "It's not easy. You have to do the best you can to surround yourself with people who know what they're talking about, who have your best interests at heart and know how to bring a player back from that. That's what's important."
Reimold said he is no longer hampered by the Achilles surgery, which left a long scar on his left heel, although applying pressure solely on that side still causes some discomfort. He has never outwardly used his injury as an excuse, and isn't worried about it significantly hampering him at this stage of his recovery.
Instead, Reimold is focused on getting back to Baltimore, a notion that gets his eyes to light up. He has been playing first base exclusively since Tides infielder Brandon Snyder hit the disabled list on June 18, and Reimold is growing more comfortable with it each game. He knows his defense won't be the deciding factor when the Orioles come calling, but he won't let it be an obstacle, either.
"He's worked hard at [first base], and he's playing it adequately right now," interim Tides manager Bobby Dickerson said. "There's work to be done. But if his bat comes back to what we heard his bat has been, yeah, he can spend some time at first base [in the Majors] for sure."
"It's going to end up being up to him," Dickerson said of Reimold's return to the Orioles. "If he's mentally believing he's feeling better, now the confidence level will get going and will get his production going. If he believes that with Brady here helping him is helping him, than that's going to be helping him. It's that Linus-blanket type of thing, making sure that his mind is right. I think he knows he has to find a way to get it going."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.