SARASOTA, Fla. — Garrett Atkins had just completed his first workout with the Orioles when he returned to his locker, shed his orange-and-black warm-up jacket and grabbed a bat.
Spotting Terry Crowley across the clubhouse, Atkins approached his new hitting coach and asked whether it would be OK to go out to the batting cages and get in a few more swings.
"I'll see you out there," Crowley said, offering an approving nod.
Atkins and Crowley have wasted no time forming a relationship that the Orioles hope will help the first baseman return to the form that made him one of the most productive hitters in the National League from 2006 to 2008.
During that three-season span, Atkins averaged 25 homers and 110 RBIs for the Colorado Rockies before enduring a difficult 2009 in which the 30-year-old lost both his power stroke and his starting job.
"It seemed like we were on the same page right from the start," Crowley said. "As soon as I laid eyes on him, I felt like he was a really talented hitter. This wasn't going to be an actual makeover. This was going to be just about him getting comfortable."
Seemingly every couple of years, the Orioles present Crowley, the 24-year hitting coach, with a project of sorts. In 2006, Crowley was asked to help outfielder Corey Patterson regain his confidence and refine his approach. Last spring, outfielder Felix Pie arrived in camp with plenty of offensive tools but little idea how to use them.
Having already established an impressive track record, Atkins represents a different type of challenge for Crowley, who before arriving to spring training, watched tapes of the right-handed hitter from last season. Atkins hit .226 with nine homers and 48 RBIs, all career lows since becoming a big league regular.
"We had a couple of things that we wanted to address, but on the flip side, he's had some monster years in the big leagues," Crowley said. "I didn't overwhelm him with things to do. He already knows how to hit, how to knock in runs, how to hit with power. My basic approach for him was just to get him back on a comfortable track, allow him to see the ball and allow his natural athleticism to take over without a multitude of changes. He looks really, really good to me right now in the batter's box."
This spring, Atkins is hitting .222 (6-for-27) with two doubles and a solo home run. While Atkins has spent plenty of time working on his swing, his attention has been split with getting more familiar with first base -- he was primarily a third baseman for the Rockies -- and getting to know his new teammates.
"It takes time like anything else," Atkins said. "Now is probably the time I'm starting to feel comfortable. You start to get on the field with these guys every day, you start getting to know them better. It's been fun the last couple of weeks. I feel pretty good. I'm starting to see the ball pretty good. Things are coming along."
As for his relationship with Crowley, Atkins said: "Obviously, I heard he was a real good hitting coach and all of the hitters liked him. When every hitter likes the hitting coach, he's probably pretty good. He's been very positive with me, and he's willing to work in the cage. That's what you're looking for in a hitting coach."
Atkins, an extremely quiet guy who has mostly kept to himself for the first couple of weeks of spring training, expands little on what he felt led to his struggles last season. He acknowledged that he picked up a few bad habits that he couldn't break, and he might have gotten too pull-happy, trying to hit every ball hard and over the fence.
"We went back to the basics, and I'm just trying to hit the ball hard and not really worry about the home runs," Atkins said of his refined approach. "I just got into a few bad habits and got some mechanical flaws in there. You just try to take the offseason and learn from it, forget about them and hopefully come back and try to get back to how you felt two years ago when you were successful."
While acknowledging that losing his starting job was the most frustrating aspect of the trying 2009 season, Atkins also sees no point rehashing his breakup from the Rockies, who nontendered him Dec. 12, his 30th birthday.
Ten days later, Atkins, wanting to find a place where he can play every day, signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal that included a 2011 club option with the Orioles, who had vacancies at both corner infield spots and needed a right-handed bat.
The deal was moderately criticized by several baseball pundits, who pointed out that Atkins' numbers have declined for three straight seasons and his production away from Coors Field dropped significantly. For his career, which spanned parts of seven big league seasons for the Rockies, Atkins was a .327 hitter with a .384 on-base percentage and a .507 slugging percentage at home. On the road, his career average is .252 with a .344 on-base percentage and a .448 slugging percentage.