PEORIA, Ariz. - Every day during spring training last year, Jack Cust focused on opening day and the pitcher he and his Oakland teammates were going to face - Felix Hernandez.
“I wasn’t swinging the bat well at all, but all I was worried about all spring was facing Felix on Day One in Oakland,” Cust said. “Then, I wasn’t facing Felix.”
That’s because, on the last day of camp, the Athletics sent Cust to the minor leagues. At 31, he was back in Triple-A.
Today, Cust is in camp with the man he’d hoped to face last April, and he’s been signed by the Seattle Mariners to serve as the designated hitter.
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His role? Inject a little offense. Show teammates the value of a patient approach at the plate.
“I take a lot of pitches, borderline pitches. I don’t really expand the strike zone,” Cust said.
So patience has helped him at the plate?
“My first couple of years I’d think, ‘That’s not a strike, I’m not swinging at it.’ But my dad would be like, ‘They’re going to call it, swing at it.’ ” Cust said. “I’m saying, ‘I can look at it on tape and I know it’s not a strike, why am I going to swing at it?’
“My strikeout and walk numbers were ridiculous – like 190 strikeouts and 120 walks. Three hundred at-bats without putting the ball in play.”
Cust has put up intriguing numbers throughout his career. Take, for instance, 2008 with Oakland. He walked 111 times, struck out 197 times and hit 33 home runs. With Triple-A Portland in 2006, Cust walked 143 times in 138 games.
Walking and striking out are a big part of the game Cust plays.
“Every year I’m gong to walk 100 times and strike out over 160 times,” he said. “Every year I go in hoping for 80 walks and 130 strikeouts. If I did that I’m sure I’d probably hit .300
“A hundred-thirty strikeouts may seem like a lot, but for me it’s not.”
After playing 33 minor league games last season – walking 33 times and striking out 33 times – Cust was called up to Oakland and proceeded to hit .272 in 112 games.
This year, that bat, that patience and that approach will be in the heart of the Mariners’ order, most probably at cleanup.
“The lineup they put together this year is pretty good,” Cust said. “Any time you’ve got Ichiro (Suzuki) and Chone Figgins hitting in front of you, that’s a fun thing. Two fast guys who get on base a lot and score a lot of runs, there’s a lot of chances for RBIs.”
Cust is a big man – at 6-foot-1, he weighs about 250 pounds. He doesn’t go to the plate with a big man’s approach, though.
“When I was young I just tried to hit home runs and open eyes, but now, you’re here for a reason and they know you can hit the ball out of the ballpark,” he said.
“I’m never trying to pull the ball in batting practice, because that just gets you in bad habits. I’m just trying to start my swing on time, stay opposite-field for the most part. When I’m going well I’m just trying to hit the ball to left field.
“If I catch it deep in the zone, I hit it to left. If I catch it out front, I hit it to right.”
And once games start? Cust brings the topic back to the top of the order, to Ichiro and Figgins.
“They’re guys who can steal bases, which disrupts the pitcher’s rhythm. Sometime with guys on first and second base, teams play the shift on me,” Cust said. “If you play the shift with Figgy or Ichiro on second, they can take third pretty easy. And it opens up the field more if they play traditional defense.
“Obviously, when you’ve got fast guys on base, you’re going to get more fastballs, and I’m a fastball hitter.”
What Cust has learned, however, is not to expect that fastball when a pitcher falls behind him in the count.
“They’re not going to give you a 2-0 cookie, so they’re going to throw a change-up or take a little off the fastball and get you to roll it over,” he said.
“There would be time in the past when I’d be struggling and I’d get 2-0 and think, ‘Here it is, here comes the homer, it’s going to get me locked in.’ But if I’d take that single that at-bat, you’re 1-for-3 and you keep yourself above water until you get hot. And then you can start trying to get into some balls and start driving them.
“Last year I felt like I got better at that. I guess that’s maturing.”
Manager Eric Wedge considers Cust a thinking hitter, a man with an idea at the plate who – until there are two strikes – is looking for a certain pitch and won’t chase anything else.
Even though Cust’s home run totals have dropped in each of the past three years, from 33 to 25 to 13, he gives the Mariners a little left-handed power in a park that rewards it.
In 1997, the year he signed his first professional contract, Cust opened the Jack Cust Baseball Academy in Flemington, N.J., and, with his father and brothers, made it available to everyone from Little Leaguers to minor leaguers.
“It gave me something to do in the offseason, teaching hitting lessons. I had about 10 kids the first year when they got done after school,” he said. “We had a couple of cages and it was a place where I could hit in the offseason and talk to kids about hitting. Teach them the kind of stuff my dad taught me.
“It has grown since then. Now, we’ve got eight fields and numerous cages. Indoor we’ve got about 10 cages.”
Every offseason, Cust teaches hitting – and learns a bit more about the art.
“I’ve been around a while. Last year was the first time I really started figuring out the league,” said Cust, who has played with the Athletics, Padres, Rockies, Orioles and Diamondbacks. “I’m an older guy but I’ve only got about four full seasons in the big leagues.
“Now, I’ve faced the pitchers so much in this league that I feel comfortable knowing what they’re trying to do to me and knowing how I’ve got to attack them.”
Will there be pressure on him to produce for a team in desperate need of production?
“I’m sure at some point I’ll feel pressure when the situation warrants it,” Cust said.
For now, he’ll maintain the patience at the plate that began when his father coached him in Little League.
“Other kids are swinging at balls over their head and in the dirt, and I would just take and take and take until I got that pitch,” Cust said. “It worked. I always hit for power because I would swing at good pitches. If you swing at pitches you want to hit, you’re going to hit them harder than if you swing at pitches the pitcher wants you to hit.”
It’s worked for Cust – usually.
“Last year I was good enough to get sent back to Triple-A, that’s how good I was,” he said.