LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Astros hitting coach Mike Barnett isn't content to let players swing away in pregame batting practice without some kind of plan. Seeing how far over the fence they can hit the ball is fine, but Barnett wants the hitters to have a bigger purpose beyond getting in their hacks.
He wants them to think about different situations they might face in games and how to approach them. Should they be trying to drive the balls into the gaps? Should they be trying to take what is pitched and hit the ball to the other way?
Barnett believes there's no better time to work on situational hitting than during batting practice, which is why he requires the hitters to approach their second round in the cage each day with different situations in mind.
"Situational hitting has to be a plus for us," Barnett said. "If you don't work on it day in and day out, it's not going to be important to the players. But my feeling is we need to work on it and we've constantly talked about it, and it's basic, fundamental baseball. We just incorporate it into our batting practice every day."
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During the first round of batting practice, Barnett wants the players to concentrate on staying in the middle of the field with their seven swings. Things change in the second round, when Barnett gives them certain situations to consider while they're batting.
The first two pitches are for hit-and-run situations, the next two pitches are with a man on second and nobody out, the fifth and sixth pitches are with a man on third and the infield back and the final two pitches are with a man on third, less than two outs and the infield in.
"You watch it day in and day out, and guys generally have the best swings in that round," Barnett said. "We're striving for every guy to be 8-for-8 every day, so when they get in a game, they're prepared and ready to go. But it's funny. You watch BP because they've got a purpose on every single swing in that round, it usually ends up being the best round of the day."
Astros center fielder Michael Bourn is sold on the concept.
"I think it gives us something to work on and makes sure we're concentrating on the task at hand," he said. "You know a fastball is coming, but you're moving the runners over and trying to get them home, so you try to put your mindset in that situation. I don't think it can be anything but helpful for us."
Barnett, who spent the previous two seasons as the Astros' Minor League hitting coordinator, started the drill during his tenure as hitting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays (2002-05). He was told he would never get Major League players to participate, but it turns out they couldn't get enough of it.
"I remember going to Minnesota and they were taking infield and we only had 40 minutes for batting practice, and I told the guys the second-round situations would be optional today if you don't want to do them," he said. "To a man, they did them, and it just became part of their everyday routine, and it shows them it's important. And once it becomes important to them [in batting practice], it becomes important to them in games as well."
It's unlikely the Astros would ever ask sluggers Carlos Lee or Hunter Pence to use a hit-and-run, but the idea during a hit-and-run situation is getting the ball on the ground in the middle of the diamond. The goal is be more aggressive than simply putting down a sacrifice bunt.
"If you get the ball on the ground, you've done your job, and hopefully it will find a hole and create a first-and-third situation," Barnett said. "At worst, the guy's going to end up at second."
With a man on second and no outs, the hitters have to have the mindset of driving in the run. At worst, Barnett wants to be able to push the runner to third with a productive out. With a runner on third and the infield back and no outs, the goal is to hit the ball to the area of the shortstop or second baseman.
"Now the runner on third less than two outs with the infield in, everybody thinks sac fly," Barnett said. "We want guys to have the mindset of forcing the ball up, out over the plate and thinking about driving the ball just to the opposite side of straightaway center. And driving it on a line.
"If they happen to be a little bit early on the ball, then generally that's when you get the sac fly. But guys will make the mistake of trying to hit the sacrifice fly, trying to lift the ball, and they will pop the ball straight up on the infield. So it's a little reminder day in and day out, and the more you do it, it shows to them it's important to us and then it becomes important to them."
The Astros, who hit only 108 home runs last year, aren't loaded with power, so it's imperative they get the most out of situations with men on base. Barnett says the teams that typically win games decided by three runs or fewer are the teams whose pitchers walked the fewest batters and whose hitters took better advantage of situational hitting.
"If you do those things, you think about being able to pick up one or two more runs or putting yourself in a position to create one or two more runs per game," Barnett said. "Over the course of a whole season, that's a lot."
Barnett would like the Astros to get a runner home from third base with less than two outs around 65 percent of the time, whether it's a ground ball, sacrifice fly or a base hit. To get an idea of what scoring an extra run can do, consider this: The Astros were 17-65 last year when scoring three or fewer runs and 59-21 when scoring four or more runs.
"I keep the numbers on it day in and day out, and I can pretty much tell you where we're at," Barnett said. "Again, it just shows this spring we need to get better at it. We've just been fair right now, and hopefully, it's something we can be better at.
"If you have a lineup like the Yankees, where you can just sit back and wait for the three-run homer, that's great. To me, that's American League East baseball. When you're in the National League, every club, if you're going to have success and win, you have to get those situations carried out."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.