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02/18/09 3:49 PM EST

Encarnacion out to shake 'homer-itis'

Slugger plans to bring consistent approach to plate in 2009

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Edwin Encarnacion admitted as much. When the Reds third baseman stepped into the batter's box last season, he may have been staring at the opposing pitcher, but he had his focus squarely on the seats beyond the left-field fence.

What really departed the park was the clutch young player in run-producing situations -- replaced by a more inconsistent hitter.

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"I want to try to stay more to the middle. Last year, I tried to pull too many balls and hit more homers," Encarnacion said Wednesday after reporting to camp. "That's why my average went down. I will be more consistent as a hitter. I know I can do it. I've done it before. I know I can hit better than that and I just have to keep working."

Although the Reds have a power vacuum entering the season, this was what they wanted to hear from Encarnacion after they just signed him to a new two-year, $7.6 million contract Tuesday that avoided arbitration.

Last season, Encarnacion batted .251 with a career-high 26 home runs but just 68 RBIs in 146 games. The 26-year-old's average dipped 38 points from the previous season while his home run total climbed by 10. His on-base percentage dipped from the .350s the previous two years to .340.

"That's what we talked about with Edwin this winter. The Edwin I knew was a right-center-field hitter that can pull," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "To be a pull hitter, you have to be perfect all the time on your swing. You're actually cutting your territory down. It's like using a slice of the pie instead of the whole pie. They can start defending you easier because they're more alert on one side of the field."

Encarnacion's average with runners in scoring position was .360 in 2007, and .471 with the bases loaded. It fell to .234 with RISP in 2008, .176 with the bases loaded.

For years, Encarnacion has been viewed as a promising player poised for a big, breakout year. Everyone is still waiting for that year where he puts it all together offensively.

"Sometimes it happens at that point of your career. It happened to me," Baker said. "It's a disease -- I call it home run-itis. You start liking the trot. What happens is you end up hitting lower, less RBIs and have just as many homers. I got a letter from [former Dodgers pitcher] Joe Black, I'll never forget it. I still have the letter. He told me to 'remember you're a hitter, not a slugger."

Often mistakenly knocked for too a calm of a demeanor, Encarnacion is actually prone to confidence issues and can press too much when struggling. Although fans may have a hard time believing it, he'll actually have to keep his emotions in check more when at the plate.

"You can't go to the plate hitting like crazy," Encarnacion said. "You have to go up with some plan. That's what makes you a better hitter."

Historically, Encarnacion's most known issue is defense. Often prone to making bad throws, he committed 23 errors last season, up from 16 in 2007. He committed a career-high 25 errors in 2006.

On any given day during the season, Encarnacion is often the first one out on the field early working on his defense. He said he spent considerable time in the offseason in the Dominican Republic working some more.

"I know I can catch everything," Encarnacion said. "I have to keep the errors down. The first thing for winning games is playing good defense. If you don't play good defense, you don't win games."

One fact that may surprise is that Encarnacion has the third-longest tenure on the Reds with five seasons despite his young age.

"Unbelievable. I can make the rules now," Encarnacion joked.

Not surprisingly on Wednesday morning, Encarnacion was in the kind of pleasant mood that one would expect from a guy coming from a family of 15 siblings that was just given a $7.6 million contract.

The deal came together in the overnight of Tuesday morning. Encarnacion missed the report date for Reds position players but was already in Arizona for his arbitration hearing before the deal was struck with hours to spare.

"Now I can just play ball and have fun," Encarnacion said. "I was nervous. I didn't want to go. That's what I told my agent and we tried to make the deal."

With potential arbitration out of the way for the next two years, Encarnacion can focus on hitting and less on contracts and home runs.

"To hit it out of the park at our ballpark, you don't have to pull it. I think he's going to have a big year," Baker said.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.