Maxwell has all the makings to excel
Wrist injury stalled career a bit, but outfielder is now reinvigorated
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- It's pretty clear Nationals manager Manny Acta is a fan of outfielder Justin Maxwell. The skipper often talks about Maxwell's high character and potential as a player.
In fact, when the team was ravaged by injuries last summer, Acta wanted to call up Maxwell from Double-A Harrisburg. The skipper already saw a glimpse of Maxwell's potential after the 25-year-old outfielder was promoted to the big leagues in September 2007.
Maxwell was getting clutch hits that month. The first hit of his big league career was a pinch-hit grand slam against Marlins left-hander Chris Seddon. After that, Maxwell platooned with then-Nationals outfielder Ryan Church in center field, and the results were positive. Maxwell was unfazed when he faced then-Mets left-hander Tom Glavine. Maxwell hit a solo home run against the future Hall of Famer in a 10-9 victory on Sept. 25. Three days later, with Phillies ace Cole Hamels on the mound, Maxwell went 2-for-3.
Unfortunately, Acta couldn't get Maxwell to the big leagues last season. While playing right field for Harrisburg on May 19, Maxwell dove for a ball on the warning track against Double-A New Britain and fractured his right wrist, forcing him to miss the rest of the season.
"I was disappointed, because last year was a perfect year to give a guy like Justin experience up here like we did with the Jesus Floreses and Collin Balesters of the world. He was hurt," Acta said. "Hopefully, Justin will stay healthy this year and continue to make improvements. He is already in the mid-20s. We need him to stay on the field."
Maxwell is healthy, but he acknowledged he has butterflies when it comes to making diving plays in the outfield, because he doesn't want to reinjure his wrist.
"I feel great," Maxwell said. "My wrist is not bothering me. I have to get the butterflies out when it comes to making the diving plays in the outfield. That's how I broke the wrist. Maybe breaking my wrist is a blessing in disguise, because my throwing has gotten better."
Maxwell most likely will start the season with Triple-A Syracuse. The Nationals love his instincts in the outfield, but he still needs work with the bat. Entering Saturday's action, Maxwell was 4-for-20 (.200) without an RBI.
Hitting coach Rick Eckstein has been poring over DVDs on how to improve Maxwell's swing. Eckstein decided to have Maxwell go back to the open stance that made him the Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year in 2007. That stance allowed Maxwell to see the ball better. Without it, he is currently missing balls on the outside part of the plate.
"We are trying to formulate a game plan for him," Eckstein said. "Coming into camp, we wanted to watch him perform. So now we are trying to get that page going for him. I think we formulated that this morning."
Maxwell used the open stance for the first time in the ninth inning against the Mets on Saturday afternoon, hitting a pinch-hit two-run home run off right-hander Matt DeSalvo in the Nationals' come-from-behind 6-2 victory.
"If it's not broken, why fix it? [Eckstein and Maxwell] worked it out today in batting practice," Acta said. "It's always good for a guy's confidence that even on the very first at-bat, he has some success. So he doesn't have to second-guess himself about changing his stance."
Maxwell said he was thinking about going back to the open stance after having a conversation with his wife, Loren, several days ago.
"My wife asked me the other day, 'Where did you feel most comfortable in your career?' I told her the open stance," Maxwell said. "The reason we were trying to change some things was because I was over-striding. I was over-striding at the beginning of last year. I tried a bunch of different things, but I have gone back to the basics."
A .263 career hitter in the Minor Leagues, Maxwell believes staying healthy and playing every day will improve his hitting.
"When I start to play every day and have consistent at-bats, that's when I feel I can take off," Maxwell said. "It's going to make me better for it. Nothing comes easy for me, I have to work for it."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.