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03/05/11 2:15 PM ET

Healthy LaPorta eager to maximize potential

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Matt LaPorta charged out of the batter's box and watched as the baseball that was introduced to his bat seconds earlier carried deep into left field. It was only an early-spring intrasquad game, but that did not matter.

LaPorta sprinted up the line, pushed off first base, pumped his arms and ran hard toward second. The relay throw from the outfield nearly beat him, but LaPorta slid in just ahead of the tag, brushed himself off and earned himself a double.

A year ago, LaPorta would not have tried for second base.

"That would never have even crossed my mind," LaPorta said.

That is because, a year ago, LaPorta was still recovering from surgeries on his hip and left foot. He was not at full strength -- during last spring or the regular season that followed -- and the result was a campaign that the first baseman can only hope serves, not as an indication of his ability, but as a learning experience.

Things are different this spring.

LaPorta is healthy. He had a normal offseason and his legs are feeling strong. Indians manager Manny Acta has said that all one has to do is watch LaPorta run to see the drastic improvement. That second-inning double in Cleveland's intrasquad contest on Feb. 24 was a clear example of what Acta meant.

Now, the Indians hope to see exactly what they have in LaPorta.

LaPorta is curious to find out more about himself, too.

"Who knows?" LaPorta said. "I might be a 15-home run hitter. I might be a 40-home run hitter. I don't know. We don't know yet. It's allowing your body to take over and become whatever it is."

On Thursday, LaPorta launched a pinch-hit grand slam off Rangers pitcher Mark Hamburger. One day later, the Indians first baseman went 0-for-4 at home against the Rockies. LaPorta is hoping to end his search for consistency once Opening Day arrives on April 1.

When he has been healthy, LaPorta has always been a legitmate power threat.

He was the key component within the package of players shipped to Cleveland in July 2008 as part of the blockbuster trade with Milwaukee for ace CC Sabathia. LaPorta had slugged his way through Charlotte High School in Florida and again at the University of Florida.

LaPorta was taken twice in the First-Year Player Draft -- by the Cubs in 2003 and by the Red Sox in 2007 -- but did not sign. After going back for his senior year at Florida, he turned himself into a first-round Draft choice for the Brewers in '07 and proceeded to make mincemeat of Minor League pitchers.

Cleveland is hoping LaPorta -- now with a clean bill of health -- can find his inner slugger for the season ahead.

"He's in great shape," Acta said. "He continues to work hard. He shows up very early and does all the extra work he has to do. It's showing right now. Hopefully that will translate into being the kind of guy that everybody is expecting him to be."

LaPorta will open this season as he did the last one, serving as the Indians' Opening Day first baseman against the White Sox. Out of the gates last year, LaPorta slumped to a .218 average with just one homer and seven RBIs before the Tribe sent him down to Triple-A Columbus.

In the Minors, LaPorta did what he has always done. He hit .362 over 18 games.

After being summoned back to the Majors on June 27, LaPorta flashed his potential, launching home runs in three straight games from June 29-July 1 and hitting at a .286 clip in his first 30 games back in the bigs.

Then, the fatigue set in.

Over the first few months of the season, LaPorta was working through running drills three times a week to strengthen his legs. By the time August rolled around, the first baseman was spent. It affected his running and it took a toll on his offense. He hit just .147 from Aug. 10 through the end of the year.

Through it all, LaPorta was also being worn down mentally.

"When the physical part wasn't there for me," LaPorta said, "it became more of a mental thing. How do I handle that mental aspect? How do you handle it when you're not doing well? When you're struggling?"

LaPorta then cracked a smile.

"If life gives you lemons," he added, "you make lemonade, you know? You just keep learning from it."

LaPorta dedicated his offseason to getting his legs stronger and he showed up to camp a bit leaner. This spring, he has been picking the brain of former Indians first baseman and manager Mike Hargrove, who is now working as a special advisor for the ballclub.

"I talk to him about everything under the sun," LaPorta said.

One thing that Hargrove told LaPorta echoed the advice of one of the first baseman's close friends.

"[My friend] said, 'Man, you're going to be a good ballplayer once you figure out to be comfortable with who you are," LaPorta said. "That's kind of something that really sunk in. Grover mentioned it, too."

One thing is clear right now. LaPorta is comfortable with how he feels.

The same could not be said a year ago.

The Tribe hopes that is a positive omen for the year ahead.

"You never know," LaPorta said.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.