Lillibridge carving out big niche

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One of the defining moments in the development of Brent Lillibridge occurred two years ago when he was one of the White Sox’s final spring cuts.

“I knew my swing was getting there,” Lillibridge recalled. “It was just a matter of time.”

Since getting promoted from Triple-A Charlotte two months later, Lillibridge gradually has evolved into more than just a versatile glove man.

His steady improvement has encouraged manager Robin Ventura to find ways to get him in the lineup, which could lead to more financial stability for him after virtually facing a crossroads with his third organization.

“It’s the comfort of coming to spring training to work on what I envisioned the past five years of my career, just walking in here and saying, ‘I’m going to work on this. I’m hoping to work on what I need to work on,'” said Lillibridge, who played in the Pirates’ and Braves’ organizations. “Instead of ‘I have to get results. I have to try to make the team.’

“(The latter approach) is actually the worst way to think about it. If I just worked on what I needed to work on, which I’ve been doing and having the best spring training, why didn’t I figure it out a few years ago?

“But it was the stress of making the team. ‘You must have results. The ball needs to drop.’ It’s a lesson learned that if you just stick with what you’re working on, things you know you can get better at, it translates to the game and the season that you’ll have success, one way or another. It was a great lesson for me.”

Lillibridge has learned gradually to trust his swing and his instincts. He made a major improvement last year when he hit a career-high 13 home runs in only 186 at-bats.

The latest milestone in Lillibridge’s development occurred Wednesday against 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez. Lillibridge started one rally with a double off the base of the left-field wall at the Peoria Sports Complex, and then hit a two-run double to center field to cap a three-run rally off the Mariners ace.

Keeping his stroke sharp while not losing his timing has been a challenge for Lillibridge because of his infrequent playing time over the past 11/2 seasons and because his number is called for multiple positions.

His defense, however, hasn’t been a concern. He provided one of the highlights of the Sox’s dismal 2011 season with a running catch before smashing into a right field wall and later making a diving catch to preserve a 3-2 victory April 26 at Yankee Stadium.

Ventura has said Lillibridge is the primary backup to Alexei Ramirez at shortstop, a position he played so well in college at Washington that the Pirates picked him in the fourth round of the 2005 draft.

Many Sox followers were clamoring for former manager Ozzie Guillen to play Lillibridge more frequently last year in light of the slumps of Gordon Beckham, Alex Rios and Adam Dunn. But Lillibridge appreciates that Guillen often employed him in situations where he had the best chance to succeed.

After his promotion in June 2010, Lillibridge batted .409 (9-for-22) as a substitute.

Lillibridge was out of minor league options last spring but clearly outplayed the competition to earn a spot on the opening day roster.

He improvement continued after entering the 2011 season as a lifetime .194 hitter with only three home runs in 273 at-bats. He was batting .301 on June 4 before falling into a 7-for-40 slump that dropped his average to .257.

Hitting coach Jeff Manto is fully aware of Lillibridge’s irregular playing time and his many defensive roles could have affected his hitting.

“He has done a good job minimizing all the movement and extra stuff in his swing,” Manto said. “And every role you play, it calls for different kinds of mechanics. He has done a good job minimizing a lot of things.”

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