Things appeared grim for the Atlanta Braves 22 games into the season.
Then in last place in the National League East, they were coming off a nine-game losing streak and were sporting a record of 8-14. Eric Hinske had started just four of those games.
Since then, Matt Diaz has missed time with a thumb injury and fellow outfielder Nate McLouth struggled at the plate before getting injured. The injuries led to Hinske earning a more prominent role.
It's no coincidence that as Hinske gained additional playing time, the Braves have gone 30-14, propelling them to first place in the division at 38-28 as of Wednesday night.
The 32-year-old owns the distinction of having played in the past three World Series, each year with a different team -- a 2007 victory with the Boston Red Sox, a 2008 loss with the Tampa Bay Rays, and a 2009 victory with the New York Yankees.
The first thing that jumps out about that: the Wisconsin native knows how to win. While he didn't hold down an everyday starting job with any of the three teams, the fact that he was on the team that made the World Series in three consecutive years must say something about the positive effect his presence has on a team.
It also says something about how he is perceived. If he were deemed important enough to the team in any of the three World Series seasons, that team likely would have kept him on the roster the next season. Instead, they let him go.
Hinske has not started for a full season since 2005, his fourth season with the Toronto Blue Jays.
He isn't starting every game for the Braves, but Hinske seems to be relishing his chance to start most of his team's games; he's hitting .322, with five home runs, 25 RBI and 21 runs scored through Wednesday's game.
Watching him play day-in and day-out, the characteristic that makes Hinske a special player seems to be his baseball IQ, a term that suggests a player's ability to know how to handle any situation he might face in a game.
Many players do not have this invaluable quality. One player who comes to mind is Atlanta's Yunel Escobar, undoubtedly a talented shortstop, but one who has trouble in some game situations. His numerous base-running mistakes during his four-year career with the Braves are an example of his failure to realize what he should do in a certain situation.
Wednesday night's 6-2 win over the Rays featured a perfect example of Hinske's baseball acumen.
Tampa Bay, realizing that the left-handed batting Hinske often pulls the ball to the right side, employed a common shift in which three infielders clogged up the right side of the infield. Instead of attempting to muscle the ball through the shift, Hinske showed bunt on the first three pitches he saw, though two were balls and one he missed. When the Rays didn't adjust to it, he shortened again, bunting down the third-base line for a single.
Now, Hinske isn't the first player to beat the shift in this way. Most players, though, stubbornly swing away when faced with the shift, hoping for a good result.
To show his versatility, Hinske pulled the ball in his next at-bat, just like the Rays expected before. Only this time he hit it over the fence for a homer.
If the Braves make the World Series, lots of players will have contributed. But knowing the effect he can have, it can't hurt having a player like Hinske along for the ride.
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