TRENTON– It was during one of his first Spring Training’s for the New York Yankees when Trenton Thunder 1B Chris Gittens caught the eye of Minnesota Twins hitting coach James Rowson.
When Gittens was finished hitting, Rowson blurted out “Hard Hittin’ Chris Gittens,” a phrase that has become a nickname for the 6-foot-4, 250 lb. First baseman.
Gittens is living up to that nickname through the first month of this season. He’s slashing .333/.481/.783with team-highs in home runs (seven), RBI’s (20), walks (16), and OPS (1.264, which also leads the Eastern League).
“He’s opening eyes,” Thunder manager Pat Osborn said. “And with, kind of what’s happened above us, and the way he’s playing, he’s producing, you have no choice but to look down here and say, ‘Man, this kid could help us.”
The power has always been there for Gittens, but as of last season, it’s been more about staying on the field. As the saying goes: “Availability is the best ability.”
Last June, Gittens landed on the 7-day IL on June 1st with a hip injury and would return on June 13, but on June 19, Gittens went back on the IL as his hip flared up again, this time, it would cost him the rest of the season.
“I know I wanted to be out there with my teammates, so it was hard,” Gittens said. “But I just had to stay with the trainers, stay with myself and know that when I get healthy, I know what I can do and just hope I can do it on the field.”
Gittens initially suffered his hip injury when former Thunder manager Jay Bell gave him the stop sign when Gittens was going from 1st to home but did not notice him. Gittens tried to stop on a dime which caused his hip to flare up. The second injury was another baserunning injury, this time going from home to 2nd trying to stretch out a double.
For a nagging injury like that, the best cure is rest, which Gittens received plenty of this offseason, as well as working out to bolster the strength of the hip.
“I thought coming into last year that I worked out a lot but not compared to what know now so now,” Gittens said. “I feel 10 times better than I did last year.”
When Gittens was healthy last season, he only slashed .197/.300/.339 with six home runs (he already matched that on April 30 this season), and 26 RBI’s. While the numbers were pretty decent, the strikeout totals were high for just two months of action. Gittens fanned 65 times and this season is on pace to strikeout only 75 times for the entire season.
“Me and (Thunder hitting coach) Ty Hawkins, we were just saying stay to my approach, if you’re not looking away then don’t swing at a pitch,” Gittens said. “I just feel like I was chasing too much last year and whatever pitch I want, that’s what pitch I’m going to swing at.”
To try and stay on the field, Gittens is resting on day games that are played the day after night games.
“I just feel like sometimes last year I was tired, but now I know that they have the best interest for me, so I’m on board with it,” Gittens said.
“We don’t have to get crazy with him,” Osborn said. “As we progress and the weather heats up, and he’s feeling good, that’ll be kind of a conversation he has with us, how he’s feeling, maybe we start to get a little more aggressive, but so far it’s worked for him.”
Back healthy, Gittens is reaping the rewards of consistently staying on the field and is helping his team win games doing so.
“I get to be on the field every day,” Gittens said. “I feel like that helped a lot between me being injured, going off the IL, coming back, it was a struggle but now getting balanced, getting a feel and getting a pitch I want to hit instead of me going up there and swinging crazy.”