During Brent Lillibridge's mostly tenuous 2 1/2 years on the South Side, Ozzie Guillen has been simultaneously supportive of and frustrated by the utility man, whose penchant for swinging big undermined any major-league momentum he built.
On more than one occasion, Guillen told us what Lillibridge needed to do to stick in The Show, and his lecture in May of 2009 best sums it up:
"But in the meanwhile, I talked to him. I said, 'Hey, you got to cut your swing down. You strike out too much. You got to use your legs. You got to use your abilities.' Keep saying that.
"'You keep doing what you're supposed to do and keep doing what you think you're supposed to do, you will hang around this game for a long time. You will make $10 million to $15 million in your career. But doing what you keep doing, you're going to have a tough time playing in the big leagues because you play a big man's game when you're a little guy.'"
Guillen had everything -- recent history, track record, the just-look-at-him factor -- in his corner. Lillibridge had one major-league homer to his name through 2009. Prior to that, he slugged .379 at Triple-A. He did top out at 13 homers, but it was accompanied by a ballooning strikeout rate. He swung and missed so often (23 percent strikeout rate) that he would have had to at least double his power output to offset his contact woes. His power numbers went the other way instead.
On the other hand, Lillibridge could reliably run -- he topped 40 steals in each of his two full minor-league seasons -- and he could play all three positions up the middle. Those guys can stick in the big leagues for a decade, even if they never produce enough to hold a starting job.
Plus ... he's just a little guy! He doesn't just take jokes about hailing from "Middle-earth," he welcomes them. He still uses one of my old Photoshop jobs as his Twitter page background, and he tweeted without reservation about waiting in line for "Halo: Reach."
Lillibridge started in center field on Wednesday and batted sixth, one spot behind Adam Dunn. The reaction to the lineup here on South Side Sox summed up Lillibridge's current identity issues.
"Big power in the sixth spot," Rhubarb wrote.
"Ozzie wants the sweep!" -- e-gus
"Damn straight." -- Grinder in Training
"The same amount of power that's in the 5 hole." -- ScottyPods Ver2.0
We might have had this exchange earlier in the season, and it would have been 100 percent facetious. Nowadays, it's a lot harder to tell. Chances are, if tongue is even touching cheek lining, it's only a glancing blow.
Lillibridge wasn't just batting after Dunn -- he was practically providing protection. Lillibridge and Dunn entered the game tied with five home runs. Lillibridge now leads by one. He took one of Tim Wakefield's knuckleballs over Lansdowne Street, and it should have been his third in two games. Prior to clearing the Green Monster, he hit two drives off the very top of it. They would have sailed well over the left-field fence of every other park.
The homer total alone doesn't do it justice. Lillibridge has six homers over 77 plate appearances -- Dunn has five in 213. On top of the homers, he has three doubles and a triples. Yes, half of his 20 hits have gone for extra bases, and he leads the team with a .662 slugging percentage.
(Fun fact: Lillibridge has doubled his career homer output this season. Also, he's also been hit by four pitches this season, after taking just two for the team in his previous 298 plate appearances. He's turning into a mini-Quentin before our very eyes!)
What's perhaps the most peculiar part about this power surge is that it stops looking strange when he starts his swing. He might be a mite, but he generates power. The contact is pure. When he gets a hold of one, everybody knows it. His HitTracker page isn't updated with the Fenway blast yet, but three of the six homers will qualify as "no doubters." Another qualifies as "plenty long," and one of his two "just-enoughs" traveled 407 feet.
The strikeouts linger -- 18 in 77 plate appearances -- but that's more than acceptable when he's averaging a homer once every 10.83 at-bats.
Or maybe it isn't acceptable. Whiffing has always been Lillibridge's Achilles heel, and power has been a part of his game roughly ... never. If you were forced to bet, the smart(est) money would be count on the former overtaking the latter yet again.
But I'm glad I'm not forced to bet, because I can't believe I'm kinda sorta starting to believe it.
We've seen massive flukes before. I'll always look back fondly on Pablo Ozuna's first half of 2006, when he hit .432 over 96 PAs before pulling up lame against the Cubs. He pulled off lots of magic crap over those three months -- walk-off bunts, two-run infield singles, and, of course, the Pablo Ozuna Game. None of that was sustainable, but everybody enjoyed it, and nobody took it for granted.
Lillibridge inspires similar glee when he leaves the yard, but it has become less novel. I laughed when his first homer went 420 feet to dead center, but when he knocked out Wakefield's knuckler on Wednesday, my first reaction was "finally." That same word appeared in the headline of Scott Merkin's story about it, too.
It's probably a fluke, but it's a rare kind of fluke. It's not a matter of circumstance, like Ozuna making a run at Ted Williams, or James Baldwin starting the 2000 season 10-1. This fluke involves a transformation of an entire approach. Before, when we said, "He got all of that one," referred to a flyball just short of the warning track, and there might have been a derisive snort or two.
Now we say it when he drops the bat head and he crushes it 436 feet.
Nothing about it makes sense, and that usually indicates sanity will be restored. Still, there's a hint of something more to it, because there's something behind Lillibridge's swing.
The good news is that even though we're taken aback, at least we have company. Guillen isn't quite willing to change his tune, but he is modifying it rather liberally:
"We talked to him about his game plan," Guillen said. "Don’t try to hit every ball for a home run. This kid can hit the ball a long way. I think he realized that and if he continued to do that, strike out a lot, he won’t last long in the big leagues.
"I told him, 'you play the game you should be playing, you will be in the big leagues for a little while. You play your game, the Mexican League will be waiting for you.' He took the right approach."
Guillen is trying to play it cool, but I don't think a 1.000+ OPS is what he had in mind. Guillen wanted Lillibridge to use his legs, but they're not getting much action -- he has more home run trots than steals (five in 11 attempts).
But he is right in one respect -- however Lillibridge is driving the ball, he certainly doesn't look like he's overexerting himself in doing so. To use Guillen's words, not only is the little man is playing a big man's game right now, and it's bigger than most.