Rays’ Austin Meadows’ past is showing, and that’s a good thing

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ST. PETERSBURG — Austin Meadows doesn’t want to talk about the past.

A 3½-week offensive tear by the Rays outfielder/designated hitter created conversation and raised comparisons to his dazzling breakout performance two seasons ago, when he hit .291 with 33 homers and a .922 OPS, made the American League All-Star team, earned team co-MVP honors and had discussions, since-tabled, over a big-bucks, long-term deal.

“Kind of getting back to that kind of form he showed so well in 2019,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Meadows prefers a forward-looking view, citing the inevitable ups and downs of a full season after his disappointing showing over the abbreviated 2020 schedule and his incessant drive for the somewhat elusive consistency, rather than reflecting on what he did two years ago.

“I don’t really think of it that way,” Meadows said. “Obviously, that’s good to hear. For me, 2019 was such a special year for me. And being able to repeat something like that again would be awesome. But I try to not put too much pressure on myself and not really worry too much about the past.

“The main goal is to stay healthy. I know if I’m healthy all year and I continue to put my work ethic in each and every day, then hopefully things will work out for me. So I just try to not focus on the past and continue to build and try to work on getting better.”

That work started in the winter, as Meadows was proactive to improve on his bad 2020, when a COVID-19 case sidelined him for three weeks at the start of July camp, leaving him out of shape and behind in his timing, and leading to an oblique strain. The net result? Paltry numbers (.205, four homers, 13 RBIs, a .667 OPS in 36 games) and plenty of questions about his career path.

Meadows went hard, working out at the Athletic Edge Sports Performance Training Center in Lakewood Ranch, putting in weekly private sessions with Rays strength and conditioning assistant Joey Greany and eliminating sugars and fried foods from his diet. The goal was to get slimmer (dropping 15-20 pounds), faster, quicker and freer in his movements, to feel more athletic, to be able to cover more pitches at the plate.

The power showed up first this season, as he hit seven homers over an otherwise slow first six weeks, with a .189 average and .726 OPS. Then Meadows got hot, hitting seven more homers with a .330 average and 1.103 OPS over his next 22 games, including a 10-game hitting streak where he was 15-for-38 with five homers and 19 RBIs, before going 0-for-11 in the past two.

His overall performance has been impressive. Though hitting only .234 with an .854 OPS, Meadows through Wednesday had a majors-most-matching 48 RBIs and was among the American League leaders in homers (14), doubles (16) and extra-base hits (31). Over a full season, he’s on pace for 36 homers and 123 RBIs.

“Nobody was concerned that he wasn’t going to start hitting again,” said Rays and former Pirates teammate Tyler Glasnow. “His swing is so short and simple and he’s so strong, I think for all of us it was just a matter of time before he starts hitting again, and he’s out here doing what he’s doing. I never doubted it. I think Austin’s one of the better players I’ve ever played with. So my confidence is, like, very, very large.”

Said teammate Yandy Diaz via team interpreter Manny Navarro, “He’s got one of the most beautiful swings I’ve ever seen, and he makes it look so easy.”

Hitting coach Chad Mottola said Meadows’ past became precedent, as a review of video and notes on his previous routine led to changes that sparked this hot streak. Among the adjustments were reducing “the waggle he was doing up and down with his front foot,” which gave him a more stable base, allowing him more movement with his hands, and less with his eyes.

“It’s definitely come from the root of 2019,” Mottola said. “But with Austin, we’re always tinkering a little bit. I don’t think he’s reached what he could do. So we’re searching for that last little piece all the time, even where he’s at right now. We feel great where he’s at, but we both have high expectations and think he can do more.”

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