Seattle Mariners

Cust searching for his swing

Jack Cust watches his RBI double last week against Boston, a hit the Mariners designated hitter hopes is a sign he's coming out of his slump. (AP Photo)
Jack Cust watches his RBI double last week against Boston, a hit the Mariners designated hitter hopes is a sign he's coming out of his slump. (AP Photo) AP

It was a gusty night at Comerica Park in Detroit that Jack Cust would rather forget.

Four times he stepped to the plate, desperately searching for a hit. Four times he struck out – three times looking, one swinging.

In baseball circles, Cust achieved the “Golden Sombrero” for striking out four times in one game. It’s a dubious honor, and one hopefully to be quickly forgotten.

Yet in a way, it was a night Cust cannot and should not forget.

Because in his fifth and final at-bat, when he had the chance to become the first player to strike out five times in a nine-inning game since teammate Justin Smoak did it with the Rangers on June 13, 2010, against Milwaukee, Cust avoided the disastrous distinction – a “platinum sombrero.”

But it went beyond Cust making contact and putting the ball in play and avoiding SportsCenter notoriety.

It was how he put the ball in play. Cust drove a 1-1 pitch from reliever Brad Thomas toward the left-field line. It was one of the hardest balls Cust had hit in days. The ball bounced up against the wall, a double that scored Miguel Olivo. It was more or less a meaningless RBI, scoring the ninth run in a 10-1 rout.

But to Cust and the Mariners ,it meant something more. It wasn’t so much the result, but the swing itself.

“That last at-bat, that swing and the way the ball came off the bat and the way it was true to left field, that’s what he’s looking for. That’s the feel,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.

Two days later, at Fenway Park in Boston with the game tied at 4 in the seventh inning, Cust drove a fastball from Bobby Jenks to left-center off the Green Monster. It went for a double and scored what ended up being the game-winning run.

“It felt good,” Cust said. “That’s the swing I’m looking for on a pitch middle-inside, taking it the other way. That’s the swing I’m trying to do every time. It felt good to get a big hit there for the team.”

He hasn’t had many big hits this season. He needed it.

“That was a big hit at a big time for us,” Wedge said. “You saw him come through in a big situation for us tonight. That should be a step for him.”

Is that possible? Can two swings over three days be the start of something good for a struggling hitter? Confidence works in strange ways.

Cust hopes so and continues to work on replicating that swing.

“Swings like that are what I’m trying to do,” Cust said.

There wasn’t some mechanical flaw that needed to be changed. Cust is at the point in his career where huge changes are impossible.

“Your swing is your swing,” he said. “I’m 32 years old and there’s only so much you can do. It becomes mechanical when the timing is not there. To me, it’s all rhythm and timing, when your rhythm and timing is messed up or you lose a little bit of aggression because you’re thinking too much, that’s split seconds you can’t make up.”

Cust admits to thinking too much and pressing. After spending the past four seasons with the Oakland A’s, he signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Mariners.

“I know they know what I can do, but when you start the season slow, that’s all you have to look at is that crap that is up there right now on the scoreboard,” he said referring to his early stats.

Before the recent road trip, Cust was one of the worst hitting regular designated hitters. A week ago, he was hitting .171 (12-for-70) with one extra base hit, leading to a .186 slugging percentage and seven RBI. He’d also struck out 25 times in 89 plate appearance.

It got him demoted from batting cleanup to hitting sixth.

“I don’t mind wherever I hit,” he said. “It seems like the lineup’s taken form now and we’ve been playing good baseball.”

The stats look marginally better after the road trip, but still well below where they need to be. He’s now hitting .200 (17-for-85). He raised his slugging to .247 – which is still the lowest amongst DHs. He still leads all designated hitters with 30 strikeouts and is second in walks with 22.

The walks and the strikeouts aren’t surprising.

“I strike out a lot. I walk a lot. I go deep in counts,” he said.

Cust has the nickname “The Three True Outcomes” from sabermetric fans because of his propensity to either draw a walk, strike out or hit a home run – the three true outcomes of an at-bat that don’t involve an opponent.

Cust is heavy in two of the outcomes and non-existent in the other. He has yet to hit a home run this season.

It’s a concern because Cust was brought in to hit home runs. The M’s signed him, expecting to get all three true outcomes.

Going back to last season with the A’s, he’s gone 26 games without a homer. It’s the second longest drought of his career. He went 32 games between the 2002-03 seasons when he was with Colorado and Baltimore.

But 25 homerless games in 2011 is his longest streak during one season. In 2010, he went 22 games from June 10 to July 17 without a homer.

But his runs of homers can be just as bunched together. In 2007, he had stretch of 13 games in May where he hit eight homers. Later that season in July, he hit seven homers over a 14 game period. Last season, he hit six homers in nine games in July.

And those home run surges are why you won’t see Cust changing his ultra-patient approach.

“When you are feeling good and you’re aggressive and you’re looking for pitches to hit,” he said, “you are looking for a pitch. If he doesn’t throw it, then take it. It’s strike one. You don’t care.”

While fans gnash their teeth at what seems like a guy letting a good pitch go by, Cust has other ideas.

“When you are struggling, sometimes you are like, ‘He’s going to throw a fastball and I’m going to swing at it,’ ” he said. “And you end up swinging at a pitch that maybe is a strike, but it’s not really a good pitch to hit. And you end up putting a soft ball in play.”

Wedge admitted that Cust can sometimes be too “exact” in his search for the best pitch to hit. But Cust believes that if he just does what he’s always done, the hits will come, the homers will come, along with the walks and – yes – the strikeouts.

“When you start the season like this, you’ve got to remember what you’ve done your whole career and think about all the positive things you’ve done and just keep that in your mind and keep working hard, coming to the park every day waiting to feel something,” he said. “Once you feel it, you have to take it over and just be consistent every day with your at-bats and get the timing and feeling. It’s a slow process. I wish it would happen overnight, but I think I’m getting closer and closer.”

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483