J.J. Hardy throws to first base during Monday afternoon's… (Jared Wickerham, Getty…)
BOSTON — The steady season that Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy had defensively in 2012 — which was capped by his first career Gold Glove Award — hid the pain that Hardy played through from spring training to the final game of the postseason.
After nearly every throw he made, Hardy would feel a sharp pain in his shoulder. Often, he'd shake his arm to get the numbness out, and over the course of the season he needed two cortisone shots to help alleviate the pain.
The injury — a muscle imbalance that he's dealt for years with with varying degrees of discomfort — hasn't completely gone away. But Hardy says a new stretching regimen has him feeling more comfortable in the early days of the 2013 season.
"I've gotten better," Hardy said Monday. "Now that we know what caused it all, we've been able to work at it. It's gotten better slowly. It's definitely not all better, but it's better than it was at any point last year, so I'm pretty happy with that."
After playing in 158 games last season, and leading the American League with 529 assists, there were a lot of throws — and a lot of pain.
"After pretty much every throw it would hurt," Hardy said. "It would go away maybe 30 seconds after I threw the ball. It would go away, and the next time I would throw the ball it would hurt again. But it didn't affect the way I threw the ball."
Inside the Orioles dugout, it was noticeable.
"I saw it," manager Buck Showalter said. "When our second baseman didn't get to second base for a 6-4 feed to end the inning and then J.J. had to throw the ball across the diamond, I wasn't too happy. Little things like that. He fought through it. You know how much he meant to us."
Despite playing hurt, the 30-year-old Hardy didn't use the ailment as an excuse for his struggles at the plate. A year after hitting .269 with 30 homers and 80 RBIs in his first season with the Orioles, he batted just .238 with 22 homers and 68 RBIs.
Hardy had dealt with his shoulder before, but he'd never had as frustrating of a season offensively.
"From a personal standpoint, I feel like it was my worst offensive season given that I was healthy and played as much as I did," Hardy said. "It was very frustrating. Definitely, it was good defensively and the fact that we were winning was good, so it made it a little bit easier to struggle as much as I did offensively."
Batting mostly out of the No. 2 hole last season, Hardy finished with a career-low .282 on-base percentage. On June 15, when the Orioles were playing an interleague series in Atlanta, Hardy was hitting .261, but he then went into a 10-for-106 (.094 average) slump over the next 25 games as his average dipped to .216.
"That was my longest stretch of really struggling that I think I've ever had in my career," Hardy said. "It wasn't fun by any means. Was it my lowest point offensively? Yeah, probably."
Coaches and teammates encouraged Hardy throughout that stretch, telling him that he was just hitting balls right at fielders and that he wasn't far off from breaking through. But he broke the .240 mark just once for the rest of the season.
"There was a two-week stretch there where he had to have hit 15 to 20 balls right on the nose and they just weren't finding any holes," Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley said. "He was hitting rockets. When you're going through a stretch like that, it's hard mentally and it can break you down. But he fought it day in and day out. He was hitting balls hard all year, but they just weren't falling as hits. But overall, I think he had a good season."
This season, Showalter has placed third baseman Manny Machado in the No. 2 spot, which has allowed Hardy to drop in the order, where he has a better track record. Through the first week of the season, Hardy has hit out of the sixth and seventh spots in the lineup, where he has a career .266/.352/.404 batting line.
Through the season's first seven games, Hardy said he's still finding a comfort zone at the plate. He enters Wednesday night's game against the Boston Red Sox riding a modest four-game hitting streak — he didn't record his first of those last season until the first week of May — that includes two doubles, two homers and five RBIs over that span.
"You ask any hitter and it's about being relaxed, and not thinking is a good thing," Hardy said. "I wasn't either of those last year. To feel good for just portions of the season helps a lot. Last year, I don't think I felt good at all. It was a grind the whole way. And it usually is a grind, but a lot of times when you do well and you feed off of that. Last year, that never happened."
As for his arm, last season, he had two cortisone shots — one in spring training and another just before the All-Star break — that provided temporary relief. Despite the pain, he still led all AL shortstops with a .992 fielding percentage, and his 529 assists were the most by an AL shortstop since Cal Ripken, Jr. had 531 in 1989.
"We knew what the problem was, and it's something he has about every year now," Showalter said. "He took a shot before an off day, a cortisone shot, [and] that really helped him. I'm not saying it took it all away, but it made it a lot more manageable. I think he learned how to manage it, too. He saved his bullets."
After the first week of spring training this year, Hardy noticed the pain again. Now, team trainers now have him on a pregame stretching routine — much like the ones that pitchers go through before an outing — that Hardy said has helped.
"You don't built Rome in one day," Hardy said. "It takes a while, so it's a progression thing. But I'm starting to feel a difference with it, and I feel pretty good about it."