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Destin Hood signed with Alabama in 2008,
BY RICH CAMPBELL
WOODBRIDGE--Matt LeCroy knew someone already had ordered the pizza, so he got an idea.
The new Potomac Nationals manager was throwing batting practice on Wednesday to Washington Nationals outfield prospect Destin Hood. When Hood got down to his last swing, LeCroy announced that he'd buy pizza for the entire team if Hood homered on the final pitch. In it came, and out it went. Sensing an old-fashioned, post-practice pizza party in their future, Hood's teammates cheered as the ball sailed high into the trees beyond the left-field fence at Pfitzner Stadium.
"LeCroy, I don't know, man," a skeptical Hood said through a smile yesterday. "I think it was a joke."
Hood was right, LeCroy later confirmed. But that's OK. What matters most to both is that Hood appears ready to take the next step in his development, starting with the P-Nats' season-opener today against Lynchburg.
By honing how he prepared for games last season, Hood showed signs of being the player the parent club envisioned when it drafted him in the second round in 2008. Building on that progress at a higher level in his second full-length professional season could put him on a faster track to Washington.
"He's a kid who understands what it's going to take," LeCroy said. "I believe he's starting to get it."
Hood, 21, headlined Washington's 2008 draft class after first-round pick Aaron Crow and the club failed to agree to terms. The two players were polar opposites.
Crow was a proven college player who won Big 12 pitcher of the year honors at Missouri. Hood, on the other hand, turned down a football scholarship to Alabama to convert from shortstop to outfielder in the Nationals' farm system.
Washington's minor league coaches quickly learned just how raw Hood was. His transition to the outfield was bumpy.
"He still ran post patterns and out patterns in the outfield," said Tony Tarasco, Washington's minor league outfield and base-running coordinator.
"Back in the Gulf Coast League [in 2008], my angles were probably pretty bad," Hood said yesterday. "It's funny to think about how bad they used to be."
Funny only because he's made significant progress in two seasons since then.
Tarasco helped Hood learn how to take "banana routes" to balls, circling behind them and fielding them with momentum going back toward the infield. The two worked together extensively last season when Tarasco was the hitting coach at low-Class-A Hagerstown.
"You get a guy with a standup makeup and character of Destin Hood, it makes my job twice as easy," Tarasco said. "Destin worked so diligently on a consistent basis. His hunger is incredible."
LeCroy first met Hood at spring training in 2009 and came away with a first impression similar to Tarasco's. Hood appeared to be a talented athlete who simply needed more baseball experience.
"He really didn't understand the ins and outs of being a professional baseball player, what it takes," LeCroy said.
LeCroy, who managed Hood at Hagerstown last season, and Tarasco taught Hood some of the lessons that made them both successful major leaguers.
Hood learned the importance of arriving at the ballpark early to work in the batting cage. He practiced tracking balls in the outfield during batting practice, and he worked on his base running while stadiums still were quiet.
"Lots of guys show up and want to go through that routine in an hour instead of three hours, which allows the process to sink in," Tarasco said.
Hood's new routine made him feel confident and prepared by the time first pitch arrived. He didn't feel rushed.
"That seemed to help me hone my skills a little bit more than coming to the ballpark and not having a clue about where or how to start my day," he said. "It carried into the game."
Hood hit .285 last season with five homers, 65 RBIs and a .388 slugging percentage in 492 at-bats. That was an encouraging improvement from the .246 he batted in 138 at-bats with short-season-Class-A Vermont in 2009.
Hood also benefited from better plate discipline as the year progressed. Hood chased too many breaking balls out of the strike zone early in the season, LeCroy said. He struck out on 32 percent of his plate appearances in April, compared with only 12 percent in July.
"He realized that the majority of breaking balls are balls," LeCroy said. "If he'd see spin, he wouldn't swing at it early."
The foundation, then, appears to be in place for Hood. Now he must continue his upward arc.
LeCroy and Tarasco would like for him to become a bigger threat to steal bases. He stole five last season and was caught seven times. Tarasco, however, believes Hood is capable of at least 20 steals.
Both also want Hood's slugging percentage and home run totals to increase, but there's less urgency for that.
"I'm sure with age and the number of pitches he sees, the more he develops his swing, you'll see those power numbers," Tarasco said.
Thanks to his refined approach, Hood believes it's all within reach.
"I just want to maximize being a team player and get the most out of my at-bats and defense," he said. "As long as I stay focused on what I'm doing right now, the rest of it will take care of itself."
Rich Campbell: 540/735-1974