No baseball player ever wants to be sent to the minor leagues. But for Mike Baxter, his June 10 demotion from the New York Mets to the Las Vegas 51s couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Baxter’s wife, Diana, is due to deliver the couple’s first child on June 26. That’s Wednesday.
But Baxter isn’t frustrated or bitter. In his ninth year of professional baseball, he knows it comes with the territory.
“You play this game long enough and you realize there’s ups and downs on the field and off the field,” Baxter said. “This one, the downs on the field coincided with something going on at home that’s a great event. We’ll find a way to make it work. We always do.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t play well enough to stay, and now I’ve got to make the adjustment, so it’s on me. It’s not on (the Mets).”
Diana was too far along to travel from New York, so Baxter finds himself 2,500 miles and three time zones away from his expectant wife. Still, he says he’s able to focus on baseball, at least when he’s at the field.
“In baseball, there’s always stuff going on off the field,” Baxter said. “It’s an exciting time. I don’t find myself losing concentration in the middle of games. I think when we’re at the park we’re very good at kind of compartmentalizing our game from our family life. Obviously, every time I check my phone, I’m always excited and hoping there’s a chance that something happened. It’s going to work out great. My wife and I are thrilled. It’s definitely going to be a bright spot in this year.”
The personal thrill of the birth of his first child could help keep Baxter from dwelling on a difficult part of his professional career.
The 28-year-old outfielder made the Mets’ Opening Day roster for the second straight season. But he was batting just .212 with four RBIs in 85 at-bats when he was optioned to Las Vegas.
He said he’s working hard on shortening his swing as he tries to make it back to the big leagues.
“I’ve got to get shorter, and I think I’ve done that so far,” Baxter said. “I’ve definitely kind of shortened up the swing to take out some of the loop in it. I feel like at the major league level I was missing a lot of pitches that I should be hitting. That’s very, very frustrating as a hitter. Especially when you see the ball well, you recognize the pitch and you’re swinging at the right pitches. But unfortunately there, when you miss the right pitch, you don’t get it again.”
Baxter started hot with the 51s, going 7-for-21 and hitting safely in his first five games. After going 0-for-5 in the 51s’ 6-3 loss to the Salt Lake Bees at Cashman Field on Sunday, Baxter is hitting .208 with two homers in 12 games. He said he has made more consistent contact when he’s gotten a good pitch to hit.
“What I’ve taken away from being here so far is I’m happy that I haven’t really missed that pitch as much,” Baxter said. “I haven’t fouled as many balls off.”
Baxter has proven to be a strong pinch hitter in the majors. He was 6-for-15 (.400) as a pinch hitter this season after leading the majors in pinch-hit batting average last season, when he was 11-for-24 (.458). For his career, he’s 19-for-54 (.352) with 12 RBIs as a pinch hitter.
Baxter said he learned valuable lessons about how to approach pinch hitting from veterans such as Matt Stairs, Scott Hairston and Willie Harris.
“You’re trying to get a good pitch that you feel like you can get the barrel on and hit hard, regardless of pitch, regardless of location,” Baxter said. “You just want to be ready. The last thing you want to do coming off the bench is be stuck between a couple pitches or be in your head about something else, and ultimately let the best pitch go. My take on it is to not let a good one go by.”
In addition to his ability as a pinch hitter, Baxter is a versatile outfielder who has seen action at all three spots for the 51s. He also proved himself as a hard-nosed player after he crashed into the wall to make a catch and help preserve Johan Santana’s no-hitter last June, landing himself on the disabled list. All of those attributes should help make Baxter attractive as a potential big league bench player. But he knows there’s no guarantee.
“I hope I get another shot,” Baxter said. “I think a lot of it is really dependent upon me making adjustments and getting back to the place I need to be.
“For me, it’s proving that I’ve come down here and made the adjustments necessary to translate to the major league level, which I know I can do. I know I’m capable of that.”
Contact Damon Seiters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4587. Follow @DamonSeiters on Twitter.