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Blalock Instant Hit In Tulsa

By Jim Callis

CHICAGO–Hank Blalock had been in Double-A for all of two games when Tulsa manager Paul Carey wrote his name into the third spot in the Drillers’ lineup. Blalock had gone 3-for-8, including a home run, but he was just 20 and Tulsa had sluggers such as Harry Berrios, Travis Hafner and Kevin Mench on hand.

"A lot of people were looking at me funny when I put him third in the lineup when he came up from A-ball," said Carey, who managed Blalock at Class A Savannah last year. "But like I told them, he goes out there and gets the job done. He wants to hit. He wants to be put in situations to win games."

Blalock has been winning games for the Drillers and winning over fans in Tulsa. After a dismal first half, the club won eight of its first 11 games after Blalock was promoted from Class A Charlotte. He hit for the cycle and drove in four runs in his second home game, then did it again in his fourth.

"They love him here," Carey said. "There’s a buzz every time he comes up."

There should be. No hitting prospect has seen his stock rise as much as Blalock this season. Reds outfielder Adam Dunn is having a better year, but he was more highly regarded entering 2001. Blalock, by contrast, didn’t make the Top 100 Prospects list and was No. 10 in our Rangers organization rankings. Now he’s raising the question about whether he should be included in the same class with the Padres’ Sean Burroughs, widely considered the best pure hitter in the minors.

Better Than Burroughs?

Blalock and Burroughs were born two months apart in 1980, and both are third basemen from Southern California. Burroughs was drafted in 1998, a year earlier than Blalock, so he generally has been a step ahead on the minor league ladder. Burroughs has hit .330-12-156 in 290 professional games, compared to .334-25-180 in 271 games by Blalock.

Blalock was batting .376-10-56 overall this season, with more extra-base hits (38) than strikeouts (36). He was even more powerful in his first 29 Double-A at-bats, scorching pitchers to the tune of .345-3-9.

Blalock’s breakthrough might have come in 2000, if not for Savannah’s Grayson Stadium. A 1999 third-round pick, he debuted by leading the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in batting (.361), doubles (17) and RBIs (38). Sent to full-season ball at age 19, he responded with a respectable .299-10-77 performance.

Carey says the ballpark masked Blalock’s skills because balls don’t carry well to right-center field, where he typically hits for the most power. The statistics support Carey’s claim, because Blalock hit just .285-2-38 at home and .312-8-39 on the road.

Blalock won’t use the ballpark as an excuse, and says this season hasn’t differed much from the last. He is getting strong and improving his ability to recognize pitches. Otherwise, his approach has remained constant.

"I try to stay confident and hit the ball hard," he said. "After you put the ball in play, it’s out of your hands."

Using a short, quick stroke, Blalock has been hitting the ball hard for as long as he can remember. He was 9 when he began attending baseball camps run by his uncle Sam, who later coached him at San Diego’s Rancho Bernardo High, one of the nation’s top programs. Hitting runs in the family, as Blalock’s younger brother Jake, a rising senior shortstop at Rancho Bernardo, is expected to be an early draft pick in 2002.

Two’s A Crowd

Blalock thinks he may have progressed more at third base than at the plate this year. He had a rap for being inconsistent in the field and letting bad at-bats affect his defense, but he’s shedding those labels. He has made just seven errors in 2001 after 20 a year ago.

"I’ve made pretty big strides defensively," Blalock said. "I try to take a lot of pride in my defense. Being more of a natural hitter, I have to work on my defense."

Just as Blalock began to settle in at the hot corner after playing exclusively at shortstop as an amateur, the Rangers spent the fifth choice in the June draft on Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira. With first baseman Carlos Pena entrenched as Texas’ best prospect and Teixeira capable of playing only first or third, Blalock’s future may be in left field. While he doesn’t see the need to change positions, he also wasn’t fazed by the Teixeira pick.

"I know Teixeira is a great player and a great hitter," Blalock said. "The Rangers just took the best guy overall. I can’t worry about what another player in the organization is doing, even at the same position. I can’t control that."

Rangers scouting director Tim Hallgren says Blalock has nothing to worry about. The club took Teixeira because he was the top player on their draft board, and the team’s glad to have two premium hitters.

"From the get-go, we knew this kid was a baseball player," Hallgren said. "He has a goal and he’s really focused. He’ll hit his way to the big leagues."

If Blalock keeps performing like he has, he could hit his way there by September as Texas begins to look to the future. The only reason he wouldn’t is if the Rangers decide not to use a 40-man roster spot on him a year before they have to. No one will question where he bats in the lineup once he arrives.

Jim Callis is executive editor for Baseball America. You can contact him by sending e-mail to jimcallis@baseballamerica.com .

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