We all know how Joey Rickard started his major league career – in near legendary fashion.
After hitting .397 in 63 spring training at-bats to earn the starting left field job, Rickard had two hits on Opening Day, including a single in his first major league plate appearance and a double in his second.
He had two more hits in his second game, hit his first major-league homer in his third – which prompted a curtain call amid chants of “Jo-eee, Jo-eee” — and had two more hits in his fourth.
The Legend of Joey Rickard kept growing. He hit safely in his first seven major-league games, had an 0-for-4, and then picked up hits in the next six. On April 20 and 21 versus Toronto, he had six hits in 10 at-bats and was batting .350 through the club’s first 14 games – all starts.
It was an unbelievable beginning for a guy who had played in just 29 games above Double-A in his brief career. He was supposed to be a fourth outfielder – if he made the team at all – and suddenly was the talk of Baltimore.
You knew he’d cool off at some point – because no one maintains such a pace, especially a newbie. The 25-year-old Rickard, who was selected in the Rule 5 draft from the Tampa Bay Rays this December, knew it, too.
“This is baseball. It’s happened throughout the minors, you get hot and cold,” Rickard said. “It’s always good to get off to a good start, leaving room for something (bad) to happen. You know it’s going to come sooner or later, you just try to shorten that period and try and get hot again.”
Rickard began to struggle in late April. By the end of the month, he had registered a .280 average, exceptionally solid for a player’s first big-league month, but no longer record-setting.
May was more of a challenge. He hit just .214 in 26 games and lost his everyday outfield job, partially due to the emergence of Hyun Soo Kim. Toward the end of the month he became part of a platoon with Kim, playing mainly versus left-handers and sitting against righties. But that didn’t mean the Orioles regretted the decision to give Rickard a job.
“Joey is a huge reason why we are where we are at. I think without him for the first month of the season, I think it puts us in a different situation. He was swinging a great bat and, obviously, probably was over expectations,” Orioles hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh said. “I think every young player is going to hit adversity. A kid like that that had never experienced the big leagues, he hasn’t experienced Triple-A that much, so he’s going to go through ups and downs. When you hit adversity, what you’ve got to do is get them back to feeling confident, feeling good about themselves … and find ways to make them feel like they can do what they were doing at the beginning of the year when they were going well.”
Even though he wasn’t playing every day, Rickard was practicing as if he were – working with Coolbaugh and regaining confidence.
“You can always get better. You can always get a step faster in the outfield, improve the arm strength, be more consistent at the plate,” Rickard said. “Just try to relax and hopefully that will translate into slowing the game down.”
Rickard’s June has been, statistically anyway, better than his April. Besides continuing to play strong defense, Rickard hit .344 with a .382 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage in his first 18 June games (eight starts).
He’s no longer batting leadoff – Adam Jones has jumped into that spot – but there’s a sense that he might move back to that role before the season ends.
“He has worked hard and he’s done some extra work lately and I think you are going to see the Joey Rickard of (the beginning for the season), even if he is hitting in the bottom of the order,” Coolbaugh said. “And that may give him the opportunity to get back up there in the leadoff spot again. I think Buck (Showalter) will recognize that and make that adjustment when necessary.”
For his part, Rickard said dealing with the inevitable offensive struggles were made easier because he felt like his teammates and the organization were behind him.
“They all know the struggles that you can go through in this game. It is a very tough game, obviously,” he said. “But with the confidence factor, they believe in me and that they have believed in me since Day One, it’s huge.”
It’s been almost three months now, but one thing is for sure: The major league experience hasn’t gotten old for Rickard.
“I don’t have a worry in the world right now,” he said smiling. “It’s all fun, a great team to be a part of, great clubhouse. I am enjoying it.”