The return of the Sledgehammer

Portland Beavers’ left fielder Terrmel Sledge was on the fast track.

Talented at the plate and in the field, Sledge (6 feet, 185 pounds) had risen to a starting spot in the majors for the Montreal Expos.

Once called up, Sledge produced.

Making the All-Rookie team, the Fayetteville, N.C.-born Sledge hit .269 with 15 home runs, 26 RBIs and a .462 slugging percentage.

With a quick, explosive bat and a strong arm, Sledge was a star waiting to shine.

Then Sledge was traded to the Washington Nationals (as part of the Brad Wilkerson for Alfonso Soriano deal). Once with the Nationals, Sledge hit the wall.

“I went 0 for 27. Then I was 1 for 34,” Sledge said. “But I owe my major league career to [Nationals’ manager] Frank Robinson. He stuck with me.”

Showing patience, Robinson allowed Sledge to pull out of his slump. By the time the 2005 season was over, Sledge had pulled his average up to a respectable .243.

But then, for the fourth time in his young career, Sledge was traded. This time, it was to the San Diego Padres. As the 2006 season began, Sledge had high hopes, but a .160 batting average in nine games with the Padres earned him a demotion to the Beavers.

Making a bad situation worse, Sledge was coming off of a major leg injury.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Sledge said. “It made me realize how much you take everything for granted. It’s weird when you can’t do the things that you are used to doing, when you can’t do your job. But like they say, ‘adversity only makes you stronger.'”

On a warm, sunny afternoon in mid-May, having just finished batting practice, Sledge seems at ease.

Still working through the injury and attempting to get his swing back, he’s focused, driven and calm.

“I’m still not really back to normal,” Sledge said. “It’s all about repetition. How I feel at the plate. Some days it’s there, some days it’s not. But I’m staying strong. It’s a long year and I’m starting to get that feel again.”

For Sledge, the “feel” at the plate is the key. With a short, compact, deceptively powerful stroke, Sledge definitely has the type of bat that major league scouts drool over.

You don’t make the All-Rookie team for nothing. But the trades and the nagging injury have hampered Sledge’s ability at the plate.

With the Beavers, he’s currently hitting .214, and he has more strikeouts (16) than RBIs (12).

Yet Sledge feels certain that his turnaround is just around the corner.

“You’ve just got to keep doing the work,” he said confidently. “It’s tough on your mind. But I’ve had success before. I’ve played well at the big league level. And my goal is to be starting for a big league team next year. Even if it’s not the Padres, somebody’s gonna want me.”

This same tenacity is what, as a manager, Robinson saw in Sledge last year.

“Frank would test me,” Sledge said. “He would put me in situations where I could tell he just wanted to see how I’d react. It made me learn quick. But I’ve got all of the respect in the world for him. He’s old school. If you play hard, play the right way, he’s gonna have your back.”

As an example, Sledge pointed towards comments that Robinson made in the media about his prolonged slump.

“Some reporter asked him what was wrong with me,” said Sledge, laughing. “And Frank just said, ‘I don’t know. I guess he’s tired.’ I wasn’t tired, man! But that’s just Frank. That’s how he does it. He wants to see what you’re made of. He throws you out there to see what you’ve got.”

After four trades and a major injury, Sledge has already proved, to others and himself, that he’s willing to bounce back from anything.

“I’m just going to keep on doing the work,” Sledge said. “Keep pushing, keep working hard. It’s stressful on your mind, but I’ve been through worse. I know I can play in the majors again.”