JUPITER, FL. (KMOV.com) -- Wednesday, a storm blew through the southern chunk of Florida. While most of the players had long ago wrapped up their workouts and gone home for the day, dark skies roiled and rain pelted everything in the Cardinals’ training complex.
Thursday, the sun shone brightly again and Brandon Moss stood on the field swinging easily during his assigned batting practice. The quick storm had passed, but for the the veteran power hitter, his metaphorical storm was a long one.
“I’m trying not to relive it, but every time I start talking about it there’s this feeling in the back of my neck. Like an anxiety feeling,” he said, referring to his oft-frustrating and wholly underwhelming 2015 performance. “That pit in your stomach when you’re like, ‘what can I do? What can I do to get the most out of what I have right now?’ When you’re trying to be the player you can be and you can’t be it, it’s an empty feeling. It’s a helpless feeling.”
Moss came to St. Louis from Cleveland mid-year, eyed as a potential set of fangs for a largely toothless Cardinal lineup. He struggled to find the power that was his hallmark, batting .222 and hitting just two homers in his first 25 games. He finished with only four long balls for the Cardinals, and never felt like he was consistent.
“When you hit balls and they don’t leave when you think they should, you start searching for that little oomph to get them over the fence and start changing things,” Moss said.
Coming off a hip surgery in 2014, the now-32-year-old had struggled for comfort all season. Hitters make constant adjustments, but they are generally small tweaks to improve an already consistent performance. When wholesale changes are a constant theme, the body never accumulates the muscle memory that helps batters turn off their brains and trust their instincts.
“It’s hard to play baseball that way,” Moss said.
Sometimes, he would light into a ball and send it soaring toward the wall. Fans would rise to their feet, only to groan and dejectedly slump back into their seats when its flight ended inches short of the wall. Moss would return to the dugout, absent the cathartic release of returning to the player he knows himself to be, if even for a moment. It had a cumulative effect.
“So many of those freaking balls fell just short of the wall. You look up and that’s not only taking a home run and an RBI away, it’s taking a hit away. So instead of being at .250 like you normally are, you’re at .230. Instead of having 26, 27 (home runs), you’re at 18 or 19. Instead of having 70 RBI you’re at 55,” he said. “In your head you’re like, ‘I didn’t hit as bad as the numbers say.’ I was inconsistent, and I was frustrated all year, but I can go back on video and show you 10 balls right now that should have left the park. I can show you five in St. Louis. That changes everything when you’re a guy like me. I’m not an average-hitter. I’m a guy that hits for power. So when you take those away you take away both.”
Cardinal fans saw that frustration for only two months, but Moss lived it all year. Despite hitting homers at a better clip in Cleveland, the veteran said he felt twice as inconsistent on the Indians.
For a guy who makes his living as a big swinger (he hit 20+ homers for three straight years before his surgery), each warning track flame out compounded the stress.
“I’m sorry, but you hit a ball that should leave the park, you don’t get that one back. You only get so many home runs per year,” he said.
Under the Jupiter sun in 2016, Moss has found peace. Despite strong winds during Thursday’s cage time that blew down anything hit with gusto, it’s clear this spring is a welcome change. Instead of building himself back up, he’s competing for role. He no longer has to worry about anything other than the process of his swing.
“Everything’s not a milestone. Everything’s not a checklist. Last year in spring training, you go out and it’s like, ‘he took two rounds of BP, no pain today. Check. He took live BP with no pain, check,’” he said. “It makes a world of a difference.”
Last season he came back from his surgery determined to prove his power was still there. He admitted to coming out “guns a-blazing” in batting practice, a recipe for an early burn out. This time, he’s found comfort in the process.
“That ball doesn’t have the normal drive that it does. OK, why? Last year it was because the strength wasn’t there. This year it might be because I just didn’t hit it as well. There’s not that little tick in the back of your mind that’s constantly questioning if what you’re doing is right.”
Moss smoothly rotates his powerful frame and sends another ball whistling into the Jupiter morning. The storm has passed, leaving a new, brighter day in its wake.