Lewis Brinson can’t help but see Byron Buxton succeeding and think about the way their paths have run parallel.
Buxton was the No. 2 pick in the 2012 MLB draft and Brinson was the 29th in the first round. Buxton was the No. 2 prospect in baseball ahead of the 2016 MLB season and Brinson was No. 16, according to MLB.com.
They’re both speedy outfielders — separated by three inches and two pounds — with unquestionable athletic gifts and a history of contact issues. They both had batting averages near .200 and strikeout rates near 30 percent in their rookie season, and both were back in the minors by the time they were 25.
They also both worked with James Rowson, who’s now in his second season as the Miami Marlins’ bench coach after spending three years as the hitting coach for Buxton’s Minnesota Twins, and both started to see their careers turn around with his help. Buxton, 27, suddenly leads MLB in on-base-plus-slugging percentage and Brinson, 26, is taking notice, while trying to save his own Major League career.
“It definitely motivates you, man, knowing that guys like that can dig out of a hole like anybody else,” Brinson said. “Obviously, the first couple years weren’t the years that I wanted and my expectations weren’t met for myself, and I’m sure he would say the same thing, but something clicked.”
Since starting the year 0 of 8 and getting optioned in April, Brinson has looked something like at least the hitter he was last season, when he made some progress in salvaging his career by hitting better than .200 for the first time, including a .795 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers.
Brinson, who has been the primary starter in center field since fellow outfielder Starling Marte went on the injured list with a rib fracture last month, is batting .250 in 37 plate appearances since he returned to the Majors, going 1 for 4 with a 99.9-mph, opposite-field single in the Marlins’ 8-0 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday in Miami. He now has hits in six of his last eight games, and is batting .318 with two doubles and one home run in that stretch.
His two-hit performance for the Marlins (13-16) in their win against the Diamondbacks (15-15) on Tuesday, which included the first opposite-field home run of his career, was easily his best of the 2021 MLB season.
Both hits — the homer and a double — had exit velocities faster than 106 mph and were two of his four hardest-hit balls of the season. Another lineout to center went more than 100 mph, and 15 of his 32 balls in play this year have had exit velocities faster than 95, qualifying them as hard-hit balls by Statcast. Only one of his hits has been pulled to left field, which Brinson said is a good indicator.
“My approach is middle of the field. When I’m going good, that’s where a majority of my hits are,” he said. “When I’m chasing hits, I get a lot of ground balls to third, a lot of ground balls to shortstop just trying to put the ball in play instead of trying to drive the ball. When I am going good, I’m able to drive balls the other way like I did last night.”
Said Don Mattingly: “To me, those are the best swings I’ve seen him take and more of the direction where he’s shooting balls. He’s covering that ball and able to shoot it into the gap. That tells you that swing is starting to get linked through.”
Mattingly pointed some of the credit to Rowson, whom the manager said “was able to communicate that in a way that Lew got it.” Brinson pointed out the Buxton connection.
“Similar hitter, similar builds,” Brinson said. “Me and him had similar problems, similar issues at the plate, so he kind of saw a little bit of Byron in me.”
Brinson is still far from Buxton, who’s now firmly entrenched as an MLB starter, no matter how he finishes 2021. Brinson is still just fighting for a spot on an MLB roster and trying to make the most of the opportunity Marte’s injury has presented him.
“Lew’s gotten a big opportunity and now we’re starting to see him see some of the fruits of all his work,” Mattingly said, “and it’s obviously good for our team.”
Marlins jump on Diamondbacks early
Paul Campbell’s 80-game performance-enhancing drug suspension left Miami in limbo this week. On the fly, the Marlins had to find a new starter for Wednesday and, with the offense struggling, they could hardly afford a lackluster pitching performance.
Corey Dickerson, Miguel Rojas, Adam Duvall and nearly everyone in Miami’s lineups made sure the Marlins didn’t have to worry too much about pitching. Miami jumped on Arizona for six runs in the first two innings and cruised to a blowout win in front of 3,573 at loanDepot park.
A second straight win gave the Marlins a series victory to kick off a six-game homestand. In two games with Brian Anderson back in the lineup, Miami’s offense has been rejuvenated and five pitchers combined to shut out the Diamondbacks, led by relief pitcher Jordan Holloway. After pitcher Ross Detwiler opened with two perfect innings, Holloway (1-0) tossed three, giving up two runs and two walks with three strikeouts.
Anderson missed 10 straight games with a left oblique strain before returning to the lineup Tuesday and homering in his first at-bat off the injured list. The Marlins scored nine runs for only the second time all season and won by six.
On Wednesday, the third baseman once again jolted Miami’s offense, knocking an RBI single to center off Arizona starting pitcher Luke Weaver to give the Marlins a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first. Dickerson then scored on an RBI single by second baseman Isan Diaz before Miami’s offense exploded in the second.
Shortstop Miguel Rojas added another run with an RBI triple and Duvall busted the game open with a three-run homer, driving in Rojas and Dickerson for a 6-0 lead. Weaver (1-3) lasted four innings and gave up six runs on six hits with two walks.