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Hard work paying off for determined Headley

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No player has driven in more runs than Headley (66 RBI) since the All-Star Game. (Getty Images)  
No player has driven in more runs than Headley (66 RBI) since the All-Star Game. (Getty Images)  

SAN DIEGO -- Not long after the Padres hired a new hitting coach last autumn, Chase Headley received a phone call asking two questions.

His answer to the second question is directly tied to the reason he is tied with the Brewers' Ryan Braun for the NL RBI lead this week at 108.

Wait. Braun, the reigning NL MVP, and ... who?

Chase Headley?

Good thing it wasn't a telemarketer on the other end that day last November, huh?

"Biggest thing I wanted to do was drive in more runs and hit more home runs," Headley, 28, says. "I've done it before. Maybe not at the big-league level. ..."

On the line was Phil Plantier, who had just been hired as the Padres' sixth hitting coach in nine seasons. His two questions were pretty basic.

What do you think you did well last year?

Where do you want to improve?

Since his first full big league season in 2009, Headley's mind has been stuck on 2008. He had 13 homers and 40 RBI through 65 games with Triple-A Portland when the Padres first summoned him to the bigs. He finished the season with a combined 22 homers and 78 RBI.

"I knew there was more in there," Headley says. "I knew it was just a matter of time."

Nobody in the majors has had more RBI than Headley's 66 since the All-Star Game. That, and his 21 second-half homers -- an NL high -- have helped power the Padres to the fifth-best record in the NL and seventh-best in the majors since June 12.

They are 54-39 since then and, with talented rookies Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal, are showing serious signs of better things to come. Especially with Headley, who was one of the rumor mill's hottest names at the July trade deadline, establishing himself as one of the game's most productive hitters.

"Intent goes a long way," Plantier says. "And Chase is a good example that you're always evolving as a player."

He's always been a solid hitter. Lifetime average of .269 into the season. Career highs of 12 homers and 64 RBI in '09. Solid.

Which is why this year's 29 and 108 stand out like a Great Dane next to a poodle. Especially when playing half his schedule in Petco Park.

About a month after that November phone call, Plantier spent three days with Headley at the third baseman's Knoxville, Tenn., home. They tweaked a few things in Headley's swing, worked on a couple of new hitting drills. Technical, inside baseball stuff that, among other things, resulted in Headley being "enabled to loft the ball" more, says manager Bud Black.

That helped. But the biggest reason why Headley suddenly is challenging Braun for the RBI lead goes back to that word "intent."

"His early-in-the-count plans are improved," Plantier says. "Having the intent of some damage built within an at-bat ... what we're seeing is, he's elevating balls more often, and he's been a lot better with runners in scoring position.

"He's finding ways to drive in runs without getting a hit. Not just on home runs. He's figuring out, 'I can drive in a run with an out.'"

What he's doing is a lot of figuring on the first or second pitch he sees.

On 1-0 counts this season, Headley is hitting .407. Last year, that number was .278.

On 2-0 counts this season, Headley is hitting a blistering .529. That number was .357 in 2011.

The trust between him and Plantier has only grown deeper since that Tennessee summit last winter. During spring training, Plantier welcomed Tom Tonincasa, the Padres' Double-A hitting coach, to sessions with Headley. Tornincasa worked with Headley early in his career in the minors, when Headley was knocking in 73 (Class A Lake Elsinore, '06) and 78 (Double-A San Antonio, '07) runs.

"That said a lot," Headley says of Plantier. "It told me he wasn't just some big ego guy who would tell me, 'You're going to do this.' And it told me he didn't simply want to put his stamp on me."

When you hit in the middle of the order, Plantier told him, it's not your job to make the pitcher throw pitch after pitch. Be a little more selfish. See a fastball early in the count, rip it.

That was contrary to how the patient Headley (.343 career on-base percentage) had done things so far.

But it was not contrary to his chief goal for 2012: Drive in more runs.

"Don't get me wrong," Headley says. "It still ticked me off when I rolled over a first pitch to second base last night. But before, that would change me for the rest of the game. Now, I balance it with the success I've had."

Now, if he makes a first-pitch out in his first at-bat, he's not automatically taking the first pitch or two in every subsequent at-bat in a game.

Intent to do damage.

The Padres control him for the next two seasons, and though they've already this year extended the contracts of Carlos Quentin, Huston Street, Cameron Maybin, Chris Denorfia and Nick Hundley, they have yet to approach Headley. Prospect Jedd Gyorko, also a third baseman, is waiting in the wings.

But as productive as he's become, and with the Padres thinking they can contend in the NL West next summer, don't look for Headley to be dealt this winter.

"I'm not one to reflect until the year is gone," he says. "But I will say, I'm proud of it because at the beginning of the year, I set out not to hit more home runs, but to produce more runs. To be right at the top of the league with the MVP and other really good players I have a lot of respect for, to be tied for first, that's something I'm proud of."

So are the Padres, who see better things ahead.

"It's cool," Plantier says. "It's a blast watching a guy figure it out.

"That's why we do what we do."

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