Bregman Hopes To Grow From Tough Second Season

Alex Bregman (Photo by Andrew Woolley)
Alex Bregman says he’ll play shortstop until someone says he can’t. (Photo by Andrew Woolley)

 

Forget Google. Forget Wikipedia. There's no official hashtag. No T-shirts hanging on the racks. Good luck finding it in a dictionary.

But it is real. Make no mistake. Ray Birmingham has coached in New Mexico for 37 years, and he's seen it. He's felt it. He has it.

Albuquerque Swagger.

There's something about being from Albuquerque that thickens your skin, hardens your heart, eases your mind. As Birmingham defines it:

“We're the little dog in the big-dog bullpen. The thing is—there's no fear, and there's no doubt. We know we're going to get punched. We know we're going to get knocked down, and we know people think we're not supposed to, but we're going to."

Oh, and one more thing:

“That's Alex Bregman, baby."

Alex Bregman—Louisiana State's junior shortstop, the 2013 Baseball America Freshman of the Year and an Albuquerque native—may very well be the epitome of Albuquerque Swagger.

Just ask him if he thinks he can stick at shortstop in the majors.

“Not one person has told me I can't play shortstop," he says, “Until someone does— and until someone tells me why I can't—then I don't understand why I wouldn't be able to."

He doesn't say it boastfully. He isn't arrogant. But there's an assurance about him. He's the kind of guy who expects to be great, who expects to hit .500 and nearly does.

Birmingham, who was Bregman's hitting coach with USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team this summer, remembers a particular at-bat Bregman had against Team Japan. Fooled by the pitch, the righthanded hitter took a poor hack and popped a ball weakly to right.

“He came running down to first base and he looked at me with a big smile, and he goes, 'I just missed hitting it out of the yard,'" said Birmingham, who has known Bregman since he was an eighth-grader. “In the next at-bat, he hit a double off the wall.

“That's who he is."

But what happens when the self-imposed expectations become too high? When the results don't match them? What happens when the doubles turn to strikeouts? When success turns to failure?

Those are questions Alex Bregman, with all of his Albuquerque Swagger, has never had to answer.

Until now, that is.

'Get Serious'

Blake Swihart remembers driving to a high school baseball tournament in Utah, with Bregman in the passenger seat, singing every song on the radio at the top of his lungs.

Bregman has always been high-energy, the kind of person who gets to the ballpark before everyone else, who'd rather take ground balls than sleep. Swihart grew up with Bregman, played travel ball with him and faced him at times in high school. They went their separate ways after school—with Bregman going to LSU and Swihart joining the Red Sox—but they remain close friends.

When Bregman struggled at LSU last season, when he slumped for the first time in his life, Swihart was one of the people he turned to for advice.

“I told him, 'Look, that's baseball,'" said Swihart, a catcher who is now the No. 1 prospect in the Red Sox organization. “I've gone 0 for like 38 before. And I said, 'Hey, it's going to happen, and this is your first time experiencing it, and it's all about how you act when it's happening that people are going to respect.' You have to act professional. When you get to pro ball, you're not going to hit .400 like you do in college."

The final stat line on Bregman's sophomore season reads .316/.393/.419 with six home runs and 47 RBIs in 244 at-bats. To the naked eye, that's not a bad season. It's a regression from Bregman's .369/.417/.546 freshman year, but it's not bad.

It also doesn't tell the whole story. Sandwiched between a hot start to the year and a hot end, Bregman hit just .212/.285/.271 in 29 SEC games.

“To be honest with you, that was the least success I've had in baseball, my sophomore year," Bregman said. “I feel like I started swinging at pitches that I shouldn't have. I was trying to do a little too much. At the time, my team wasn't winning. And I take that personal."

The fact is, with veteran big bats Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes both drafted, LSU was leaning on Bregman to produce. All eyes were on him.

“It was definitely a little transition because teams were saying, 'We're not going to let you beat us,''' Bregman said. “I had never been pitched that way before in my life."

Bregman found himself swinging early in the count, at pitches out of the zone, trying to will the ball out of the ballpark, trying to carry the Tigers on his own.

It didn't work. That's not who Bregman is.

Only after making some adjustments in the box—and more importantly, going back to a patient approach—did Bregman regain his stroke. In the last eight games of the regular season, Bregman batted .417 with four doubles, 13 RBIs and three of his six home runs on the year. And that offensive surge continued in the NCAA tournament, where he went 8-for-15.

Still, while that late run might've been enough to salvage Bregman's 2014 stat line, it did little to assuage his disappointment in the season.

“(Swihart) had to calm me down," Bregman said. “I was like, 'Ah, I had such a bad year.'

“And he says, 'Come on, man. You hit .320. Let's go. Get serious.'"

Bregman, Defined

LSU head coach Paul Mainieri has an entirely different perspective on Bregman's sophomore campaign.

“I think he showed his true greatness," Mainieri said. “Because when he went through the worst hitting slump of his life, he never took the bat out to shortstop with him. His enthusiasm never waned, he never stopped hustling, he never stopped caring about winning and cheering on his teammates."

Bregman isn't the most vocal leader on the Tigers, but he doesn't have to be. His teammates gravitate toward his unwavering passion for the game. Bregman's father, Sam, instilled in him the idea that it doesn't matter whether you go 0-for-4 or 4-for-4—hustle never takes a day off.

“He's a true baseball rat," said former Yankees scout and new LSU hitting coach Andy Cannizaro. “His work ethic is so good that he sets the tone for practice."

Mainieri said he saw freshmen, like catcher Michael Papierski, flock around Bregman this fall, and that gives the coach hope for the future of the program—that his players are following Bregman's lead. The 2015 season could be a big one for the talented No. 2 Tigers, and it's an even bigger one for Bregman, who is ticketed for a high pick in June's draft.

Bregman says he doesn't read his press clippings. He doesn't talk about his draft prospects. He'd rather talk about LSU's incoming freshman pitchers or about the players returning from injury that no one talks about. He'll talk about them glowingly. Ask him about his junior season, and he'll say he just wants to win. He wants to get back to Omaha. Ask him about his sophomore season, and he'll admit that it was a struggle. But in many ways, it was also a necessary evil. Now he knows how to come back from it.

“I think everbody from our coaching staff, to different guys on our team, to my parents, to everyone I know was great during that time," Bregman said. “Everyone was very supportive. It was good. It was the first time I ever struggled in baseball in my life, and I think I needed that."

That's a point that Mainieri tried to drive home to Bregman throughout the season: coming back from adversity will only serve Bregman later in life. Mainieri said he's optimistic that—as long as Bregman doesn't try to do too much—the shortstop should have a bounceback junior year. He knows Bregman too well and has seen him work too hard to think otherwise.

“If you open up Webster's dictionary to the term 'baseball player,' there's a picture of Alex Bregman there," Mainieri said. “The uniform's going to be covered in mud. He's going to have blood trickling out of his elbow scabs. This kid would rather play baseball than eat or sleep. He just loves the game so much, and nothing's going to stop him."

Call it Albuquerque Swagger.

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