RICHMOND, Va. - Some hitters have a tendency to leave the bat on their shoulders. Jack Cust allows it to become so embedded there, the label creates an imprint in his skin.
Ever since the Orioles acquired him in a trade with the Colorado Rockies two months ago, they've been trying to pry it loose.
Their message was first delivered in spring training before they reassigned him to the minor league complex in Sarasota, Fla. It's still being directed at Cust before his games with the Ottawa Lynx, the Orioles' new Triple-A affiliate.
Become more aggressive and stop obsessing so much with hitting home runs.
Sound like a contradiction? Not to the Orioles, who don't always view patience as a virtue.
Cust is adept at drawing walks, but he entered the weekend hitting .227 with 39 strikeouts in 119 at-bats. He remained stuck on two home runs, but had hit safely in eight consecutive games to lift his average above .200.
The media heralded him as the organization's first true power prospect since Calvin Pickering was devouring fastballs and Krispy Kremes, but Cust has a tendency to wait for the perfect pitch he can launch a mile. As a result, he falls behind in the count, leaving him more vulnerable, or accepts a free base, which he has done 35 times.
"He takes that pitch right down here," said Ottawa manager Gary Allenson, lowering his hands just below his knees. "He took it [Monday] night for strike three. I asked him about it in the dugout after the game and he said he thought it was low. But that's too close to take.
"If it's on the outside corner and you think it's low, that's one thing. But if it's down the middle, you can't leave that in the umpire's hands. You've got to be able to do something."
Orioles manager Mike Hargrove and his coaching staff were rushed this spring getting acquainted with Cust, who has only 67 major league at-bats. They knew about his .439 career on-base percentage in the minors, his strong build, and the two organizations that gave up on him after the Arizona Diamondbacks selected him in the first round of the 1997 draft.
In a short amount of time, they stressed to Cust the importance of taking what the pitcher gave him and being content with singles and doubles. With his strength, the home runs would come.
"They were saying don't be too selective and don't try to look for one pitch to hit out," he said. "It's an adjustment. It takes a little time for you to think, `OK, I can put this ball in play. I should hit this ball.' There are at-bats when you think, `I need to look for a better pitch. This guy might give me a pitch that I can drive,' instead of figuring the guy's not going to give in. Maybe he'll give you a pitch you can hit for a single.
"Know the situation in the game and what it dictates and what you should be trying to do. That's basically what they were talking about."
The walks are decreasing as Cust, 24, emerges from his slump. He didn't get comfortable in the box until two weeks ago. Dave Cash, Ottawa's field coach, sensed that Cust was pressing as his teammates were building the highest average in the International League and he continued to feel like an outsider.
It's not like he had to worry about the Orioles regretting the trade. Chris Richard, who went to Colorado, will miss the rest of the season after having more surgery on his left shoulder. At least Cust is still active.
"There's pressure you put on yourself," he said. "For me, it's not worrying about stuff as much, not worrying about what other people think and just going out there and doing what I'm capable of and being confident that it's good enough to help a big league team win. I'm confident that I can help the Orioles win."
He'll have to stand in line. The other outfielders at Ottawa - Luis Matos and Darnell McDonald - got off to much better starts, and Larry Bigbie was an easy choice for the Orioles when they needed someone to replace David Segui. Cust was scuffling too much to warrant serious consideration.
Cash, the manager at Double-A Bowie for the first half of last season, has been working with him in the indoor cage. Cust swings with one arm, keeping the bat flat through the zone and relying more on his hand than his body.
"He's been late on a lot of fastballs," Cash said. "A lot of it is probably pressing a little bit. All the other guys are hitting and he came over in a trade. He's trying to prove that he belongs, and he doesn't need to do that. If we can just get him to relax and settle in and feel part of the team, I think things are going to be OK."
Cust reminded the Orioles of his tremendous strength during the April 3 opener against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, when he slammed a ball off the batter's eye in center field.
"It went 460 feet if it went an inch," Allenson said.