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Frank Thomas has always been huge, but the affable Big Hurt more than filled the screen last Thursday morning on the WGN-TV news. He was there to hype Going Yard, The Everything Home Run Book, where the book jacket tells us that Thomas wrote the foreward and provided commentary for veteran sportswriter Lew Freedman. Frank was to appear at a suburban book store that evening to meet fans and sign autographs.
Thomas knows a few things about hitting home runs, having belted 521 over 19 seasons. Not bad for a guy who prided himself on hitting for average while utilizing a working knowledge of the strike zone. Perhaps his finest skill was hitting strikes and being content to draw a walk. For his career, the Big Hurt had a .419 on-base percentage, which ranks him 20th all-time.
Ted Williams, who some consider the greatest hitter ever, reached base more often than anyone with a mind-boggling .482 mark. Like the Big Hurt, Teddy Ballgame also ended his career with 521 home runs. Of course, Williams missed parts of five seasons to serve in World War II and the Korean War. Meanwhile, injuries compromised Big Frank's career - he was hurt in 2001 and also in 2004-05 - but he rebounded nicely, slugging 39 homers for Oakland in 2006.
Thomas arrived on the South Side in 1990, fresh off three years at Auburn University where he also played tight end on the football team. Listed at 6-feet-5 and 240 pounds during his playing days, he appears to have put on a few pounds, although one would not call him fat. Especially to his face.
Thomas and Jim Thome stand out as the two guys in the Steroid Era who played it straight and still managed to bang the ball out of the park. These are two big, strong guys. You would expect them to hit for power.
Brent Lillibridge is another story. When he smacked Homer No. 6 last Wednesday in Boston, not only did it come at an opportune time - it broke a 3-3 tie in the sixth inning - but it also once again elicited a where-would-we-be-without-this-guy reaction.
Coming into this season, Lillibridge was a borderline player, splitting his time between Triple-A and the big club. He had three career homers prior to 2011 and never hit higher than .224. Prior to one of his demotions to the minors, Ozzie Guillen said Lillibridge needed to learn how to take better advantage of his speed. There never was a remote hint that he needed to hit the ball out of the park.
The Sox Web site lists Lillibridge at 5-11 and 185 pounds, which seems like a stretch. However, you don't have to be a big guy to be strong and quick. We got a good look last week at Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia - a former Rookie of the Year and MVP. He and Lillibridge are about the same size. Pedroia has a wicked swing. He's very quick and is capable of hitting for power.
Don't misunderstand - Brent Lillibridge won't generate MVP votes any time soon. But generating bat speed? That's another story. He's been hitting the ball to the left side with authority.
In addition, now that he's experiencing some success, his confidence is rising. Compare Lillibridge's approach at the plate to the season's other big surprise: Adam Dunn. No one could have predicted that two months into the season Lillibridge would out-homer Dunn.
Consider the mental approach these days of a player like Dunn. He's signed a four-year $56 million contract, but he's hitting less than .180, leading the majors in strikeouts, and he's basically helpless against left-handers.
With six more strikeouts Saturday and Sunday, the fans did what fans do: they booed. Dunn had a chance to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth on Saturday, but he grounded out. Think he's feeling any pressure?
At the same time, the big fella is leading the team in walks. (Who would walk him? Evidently Dunn's reputation has preceded him.)
Management avers that Dunn "will be just fine." He is being paid a fortune to hit homers just like he has for the past 10 years.
On the other hand, Lillibridge draws a check just above the MLB minimum to, well, make the team, fill in as needed, and stay positive. At this point, Lillibridge is the game's greatest bargain while Dunn is the biggest flop. Lillibridge can play a variety of positions, and Ozzie now is finding places for him on a regular basis.
Take Friday night's fifth inning in the series opener against the Tigers. Lillibridge - in his finest Adam Dunn imitation - lined (quick bat) Homer No. 7 to lead off, giving the Sox a 5-3 cushion. Another home run when the team truly needed one.
Dunn is next, and he breaks his 0-for-40 streak against lefties. Not a home run. Not a line drive off the wall. Not even a stinging single to right. No, the big guy hits a little looper between first and second and - in his best Brent Lillibridge imitation - beats the pitcher to first for an infield hit. It's supposed to be the other way around.
So while we wait for Dunn to be "just fine" and Lillibridge continues his unlikely heroics, the team sweeps the Red Sox at Fenway but drops an important series to the Tigers at The Cell. Having played 30 of 43 games on the road between April 18 and June 1, the schedule now favors the Sox if you believe in home-field advantage.
However, if Dunn continues his swoon, it matters not whether the Sox are playing at The Cell or in Peoria. It's simply dandy that Lillibridge isn't who we thought he was; that Beckham and Morel are beginning to look like they belong; that the pitching has improved; that Paulie and A.J. are "all in"; that Ramirez likes warm weather; and that Pierre occasionally makes a great catch. Without Dunn looking more like the Big Hurt and less like the Brent Lillibridge of past seasons, this team is destined to remain right where it is.
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