Thursday, August 5, 2010

Shuck hustling through the Minor Leagues

Gritty outfielder climbing up the Astros' farm system

By Steve Gartner/

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Hooks left fielder J.B. Shuck wasn't feeling well before a Double-A game in May against Arkansas.

"He was sick as a dog," hitting coach Mark Bailey said.

Yet Shuck wasn't going to let being sick stop him from taking his spot at the top of the batting order. And when he took his spot, he held back any signs of sickness, especially in the fifth inning when he hit his first and only home run of the season.

But playing the game hard even when he's not feeling well is nothing new for Shuck, who has led the Hooks in hitting and hustle all season.

Hooks manager Wes Clements has called Shuck, 23, a throwback.

"He's going to be dirty by the time the game is over," Clements said.

True to form, Shuck's chalky white baseball pants were smeared with dirt by the second inning of Double-A Corpus Christi's game July 21 against Midland. After he led off the ballgame with a single, Shuck stole second base.

For a player who doesn't stand out with great height (5-foot-11) or incredible bulk (185 pounds), he knows playing the game at full throttle is the best way for him to reach the big leagues.

"I'm not a power guy," Shuck said. "I don't have standout speed. My game is to go out and play as hard as I can."

In his second at-bat against Midland, Shuck showed that hustle. He dribbled a ball two feet in front of home plate. For most players this would be a simple ground out. But Shuck, despite the minimal contact he made, dashes down to first once the bat nudges the ball. Sure enough, he ended up standing on first with another single.

Whether the ball drills the wall of Whataburger Field or barely reaches the mound, Clements will welcome that production from his center fielder.

"Sometimes it's not going to look pretty, but it's very efficient," he said of Shuck. "He finds a way to get hits; he finds a way to get on base."

Shuck has been on base this season more than anybody else on his team. He led the team with a .298 batting average and .732 on-base average with 116 hits before being called up to Triple-A Round Rock.

"He has the ability to put the bat head on the ball," Bailey said. "When you can do that, you're going to get your hits. He's very consistent with his approach, and consequently he's able to get a lot of hits."

The Astros drafted Shuck in the sixth round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft out of Ohio State. He still can't forget that June night. He remembers hovering over a computer with his father and waiting for a Major League team to call.

"I saw my phone ring and it was scout from the Astros," Shuck said. "That's when it finally hit me. It was pretty cool."

For Shuck, who hails from Galion, Ohio, a move to Texas was unexpected. He grew up an Indians fan, after all.

"I didn't know much about them," Shuck said of the Astros.

He didn't have time for a lesson, either. Soon after signing, he was in Troy, N.Y., for rookie ball and had a much more important tutorial in the grind of the Minor League season.

But his first year was just a half season. Last season he moved to Class A Lancaster for a full season of long bus rides to fields in the middle of nowhere.

"The first full season is a real grind," Shuck said. "It wore me out a little bit."

Shuck showed no signs of it in his season with the club, though. He hit .315 and stole 18 bases. Once the season ended, he didn't use the time off to recuperate. He worked out in the offseason as if he had hit .215.

After hitting just .253 the first month, it wasn't long before that work paid off at the next level. But that progress didn't surprise Clements, who also managed Shuck at Lancaster.

"He's going to hit the same wherever he's at," Clements said. "When I put his name in the lineup, I don't have to worry."

And with his callup to Round Rock at the end of July, Shuck has continued to show that he can hit at any level. Through five games with the Express, Shuck is 6-for-21 (.286) with three RBIs and a stolen base.

Shuck has learned not worry when he's not hitting the ball as he's capable of doing. Although he has a knack for getting on base, he has had plenty of 0-for-4s in his pro career.

"It's very important to stay even, and trying to go 1-for-4 makes your night that much better," he said. "You're not going to be hot the entire time."

Hot or cold, Shuck will work for as many hits as he can muster, hoping to continue hustling his way to the Major Leagues.

"Everybody says you have to put your time in," he said. "You know that someday, hopefully, there's that glory of getting in the big leagues. It helps out a lot."

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