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Originally published Monday, March 19, 2012 at 7:09 PM

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Mariners' Justin Smoak says key to hitting homers is not trying to hit homers

Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak says his 2011 season took a turn for the worse when he became too focused on trying to hit home runs. He hit 12 in the Mariners' first 59 games, then didn't hit another until Sept. 8 and finished with 15.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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PEORIA, Ariz. — Justin Smoak learned a lot of hard truths during his first full year in the major leagues in 2011, including the fragility of life after his father, Keith, died in April of lung cancer.

A less important, if more baseball-centric, lesson Smoak learned in 2011 was to let the home runs come to him.

The struggle to deal with his father's death, and nagging thumb injuries that were more serious than he let on at the time, played a major role in his second-half slump, Smoak said Monday. So did getting caught up in trying to hit home runs.

Smoak hit 12 home runs in Seattle's first 59 games, then didn't hit another until Sept. 8, finishing with 15.

"Last year I got into trouble with trying to hit home runs," he said. "I hit 12 homers the first two, three months and I started trying to hit homers. The first two, three months I didn't try to hit homers and I hit them anyway. When you try to do too much you start striking out, you start swinging at bad pitches. This year it's just try to stay with the same approach all year."

That means simply trying to hit the ball hard somewhere and worry about where it lands later. That approach has proved a success this spring. Smoak boosted his average to .400 with three hard-hit singles in Seattle's 12-7 loss to the Cubs on Monday afternoon. He also had two walks, boosting his on-base percentage for the spring to .500.

Smoak said when he was trying to hit home runs he would "go up there looking for a certain pitch in a certain spot. And the majority of the time you are not going to get it there. And if you do, you can't miss it. You are up there (concentrating) on trying to get it (a pitch) into one spot, and if there's two fastballs on the outside corner, now you are down 0-2 and it's like, 'OK, now what do I have to do?' "

So now, Smoak said he's merely trying to find the first good pitch to hit, and doing with it what he can.

Batting in the cleanup role can bring the pressure of trying to hit home runs. So can trying to prove your worth as part of a marquee trade. Smoak was acquired from Texas in 2010 for Cliff Lee.

But Smoak says he's not worried about outside expectations.

"Not really," he said. "I feel like if I do what I'm capable of doing and don't try to do too much, that (his play) will show itself."

The quick start to spring is also early validation for steps Smoak took in the offseason after learning additional lessons about the value of diet and conditioning.

Smoak said he's in the best shape of his career after undergoing a regular offseason regiment of two-hour workouts four days a week. He also limited the amount of bread and pasta in his diet.

"I feel stronger and I don't feel tired," he said. "Especially in spring training, the days can get long, and I don't get tired, so that's a good thing."

Vargas hit hard, says he feels fine

Jason Vargas, who is scheduled to start Seattle's second game of the season March 29 against Oakland in Japan, lasted just two-thirds of an inning Monday against the Cubs, allowing seven earned runs on eight hits and a walk.

The clubbing bumped Vargas' spring earned-run average to 12.46.

Afterward, he said he feels fine physically.

"I felt good," said Vargas, who walked leadoff hitter David DeJesus on four pitches to set an ominous tone. "I mean I guess I wasn't getting ahead the first couple of hitters and it kind of snowballed from there. ... I don't even know what to tell you. It seemed like whatever I threw, especially with two strikes, they hit, so I don't know. Forget about it and move on."

Manager Eric Wedge called it just one of those days.

"He just didn't have the command of his fastball he normally does," Wedge said. "He was up a little bit."

The game is scheduled to be Vargas' last until the contest against the A's in Japan, though he will likely have a simulated game to keep him in his regular rotation.

Kuo released

The Mariners released Hong-Chih Kuo, who was competing for a spot as a left-handed reliever.

The move leaves the Mariners with 39 players in their major-league camp: 31 roster players and eight nonroster invitees.

Kuo was signed as a free agent last month, the Mariners hoping he could regain the form he showed in 2010 when he made the NL All-Star team with the Dodgers.

But Kuo struggled throughout and had a 17.55 ERA in 6-2/3 innings, allowing five home runs and a .417 batting average against. If Kuo clears waivers, the Mariners might re-sign him.

Said Wedge: "He just wasn't able to be consistent and with where we are in camp and the decisions we have to make, he just wasn't going to be part of the puzzle initially."

Chicago Seattle
AB R H BI AB R H BI
DeJesus rf 3 1 2 2 Figgins lf 5 1 2 1
J.Adduci rf 1 1 1 1 Ackley 2b 3 1 1 0
Barney 2b 2 1 2 1 Ichiro rf 4 1 1 2
Amzga 2b-ss 3 0 2 1 Smoak 1b 3 1 3 0
St.Castro ss 4 1 1 1 J.Montero dh 5 1 1 2
E.Gonzalz 2b 1 0 1 0 Seager 3b 3 1 2 1
A.Soriano lf 4 0 0 1 Liddi ph-3b 1 0 0 0
Je.Baker 3b 3 1 1 1 Olivo c 3 0 0 0
DeWitt 3b 2 0 0 0 M.Saundrs cf 4 0 0 0
Byrd cf 3 0 1 0 Ryan ss 3 1 2 0
B.Jackson cf 2 0 0 0 L.Rdriguez ss 1 0 0 0
Re.Johnsn dh 3 1 1 0
Cardenas dh 1 1 0 0
Mather 1b 3 1 1 2
B.Lalli 1b 2 2 2 0
Castillo c 3 2 2 0
Clevenger c 2 0 1 1
Totals 42 12 18 11 Totals 35 7 12 6
Chicago 700 001 031 12
Seattle 223 000 000 7
E — Tr.Wood (2). DP — Chicago 1, Seattle 2. LOB — Chicago 6, Seattle 7. 2B — Barney (4), St.Castro (3), Re.Johnson (1), B.Lalli (1), Castillo (2), Clevenger (2), Ryan (2). 3B — Figgins (1). HR — Ichiro (1), J.Montero (2), Seager (3). SB — J.Adduci (1). CS — Figgins (2). SF — A.Soriano.
Cubs IP H R ER BB SO
Tr.Wood 2 7 7 7 2 2
J.Jackson W, 1-0 4 4 0 0 1 1
J.Russell 2 1 0 0 0 1
T.Miller 1 0 0 0 2 0
Mariners IP H R ER BB SO
Vargas 2/3 8 7 7 1 1
Camp 2 1/3 1 0 0 0 1
Kelley L, 0-1 3 3 1 1 0 1
Delabar 1 2/3 4 3 3 1 2
Furbush 1 1/3 2 1 1 0 1
HBP — by J.Jackson (Olivo). WP — Tr.Wood, Delabar 2. T — 2:59. A — 8,337.

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