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Refined swing has Lillibridge hopeful

Refined swing has Lillibridge hopeful

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Rarely has a groundout to shortstop, in a "B" game, no less, drawn such a rousing reaction from Ozzie Guillen.

But there was Brent Lillibridge, getting a hearty pat on the back courtesy of the White Sox manager, after barely missing out on an infield hit during Tuesday's contest against the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch-Glendale. The process stands almost as important as the results for the 26-year-old utility player, coming off a dismal campaign in his first year with the White Sox.

"I put a lot of work into this offseason, thinking enough is enough," said Lillibridge, one day prior to Thursday's 4:05 CT Cactus League opener in Tempe, Ariz. "I've always worked hard, but I had to work smart, as well. Hopefully, that work will show up during games."

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Lillibridge came to the White Sox on Dec. 4, 2008, as part of a six-player trade with Atlanta in which veteran hurler Javier Vazquez served as the centerpiece. This fleet-footed infielder/outfielder and catcher Tyler Flowers were thought of as providing the greatest potential impact on the White Sox.

In fact, there was some talk early on last Spring Training about how Lillibridge could emerge as the team's leadoff hitter and possibly even its center fielder. Lillibridge broke camp with the team but didn't do much with his opportunities.

Much of his season was split between the big leagues and Triple-A Charlotte, leaving Lillibridge with a .158 average, nine runs scored, six stolen bases and 26 strikeouts in 95 at-bats. Guillen felt Lillibridge was swinging too much for the fences, not taking advantage of his raw speed.

Following his extensive offseason work, including two sessions in California with hitting coach Greg Walker, Lillibridge understood how the mindset wasn't necessarily flawed. It was his swing that held the problem.

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"There were a couple of things," said Lillibridge, explaining his swing struggles. "I had high hands that caused me to have a steep slope to the baseball, swinging down on the baseball versus kind of matching the plane of the baseball.

"You see guys with really long nice swings through the zone, like an Albert Pujols and most of the guys on our team. I lack that. It was in and out and caused all those pop flies. It makes sense that if you are swinging down on the baseball, you are going to have that backspin going straight up.

"Another one was I just stayed way too far on my back leg, which caused a big slope and me not staying through the ball. Once in a blue moon, I would square a ball up, and that's not good enough to be up here."

Because the 185-pound Lillibridge reached double-digit home runs at the Minor League level in 2006 and '07, it was assumed he was swinging for the fences once again because of his propensity for flyouts and popouts. Clearly, Lillibridge's game is not based on power, which made this assumption frustrating for the affable young man.

"Really, I want to hit the ball hard, but home runs have never been my intention," Lillibridge said. "I mean, who doesn't want to strike the ball well? I want to hit a line drive over the second baseman's head, not over the fence.

"My swing just looked bad, and if it looks bad, it looks like you are swinging harder or trying to add something extra to it because you are not trusting yourself. It's something me and Walk talked about. I wasn't in a great position to hit and do what Ozzie needed me to do because of my mechanics.

"It wasn't me trying to swing for the fences or trying to drive the ball as far as I can. I couldn't even do a hit and run with the mechanics I had."

Adjusting those swing mechanics has given Lillibridge a great burst of confidence. Guillen hopes this confidence is accompanied by a more relaxed on-field attitude.

"He'll have more fun," said Guillen. "I know this is a business and he's going to compete for a job. I know a lot of people say, 'Well, go and relax,' but when you're competing for a job, you're going to max out.

"That's when the thing goes backward. You have to worry about what you're going to do. Hopefully, he makes it tough for our coaching staff and us to make the decision."

This decision spoken of by Guillen is the only position-player slot to be filled on the active roster, between Jayson Nix and Lillibridge. Nix stands out of Minor League options, while Lillibridge still has one remaining. Plain and simple, Nix also proved himself at the Major League level in 2009.

One school of thought suggests that this decision already has been made. But Lillibridge won't look at his upcoming opportunities in that manner. He believes there will be a big league job if he continues to implement the offseason changes.

Tuesday's groundout, believe it or not, was a good start.

"If I prove that I can hit consistently and show a good swing and approach every single time and do what Ozzie wants me to do, I feel like I do have the job," Lillibridge said. "If not, I'll be in a great position wherever I'm going to be or in Triple-A waiting and doing well there.

"I've been on three teams and I always feel like some team will need me. But If I don't perform, it doesn't matter. If I do well, then I'm worth something to this team or some other team. If I don't do well, I'll be stuck where I am: an up-and-down guy the rest of my career."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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