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New season, new outlook for Nuts outfielder

Brian Rike just looks like a hitter.

From the moment he grabs his bat from the rack, takes his warm-up swings in the on-deck circle, all the way up through the moment he steps in the box, it looks like there's no way the pitcher has a chance against the 6-foot, 2-inch, 200-pounder.

But last season, and for the first time since Rike picked up a bat while growing up in Texas, the pitcher not only had a chance against the Modesto Nuts outfielder but held the distinct upper hand.

This season will be different, Rike vows. He worked too hard and has too much belief in his own talent for it to be any other way. The quests of Rike and his 24 teammates begin anew tonight when the Nuts open the 2010 season with a home game against the San Jose Giants.

"It's always a reality check when you start the regular season," Rike said. "We're all coming from Arizona, where the air is dry and the ball flies. But we're going to rake."

The 2007 second-round pick of the Colorado Rockies out of Louisiana Tech got off to a slow start in 2009, hitting only .222 in the first half of the California League season.

In every clubhouse in America, a strange thing happens when a teammate -- especially one as easy-going and likeable as Rike -- struggles at the plate. Everybody has suggestions. Everyone you meet both between the lines and in the stands has the magic tweak and isn't afraid to share it.

The trouble for Rike was that he listened.

"It was like throwing spaghetti against the wall," Rike said. "Everybody was giving me strands and you just look for the one that sticks."

He tried to make a lot of them stick and applied many of the tips with diminishing results. Rike hit only .160 in the second half and finished the season hitting .198.

But as he starts 2010 tonight, he's not carrying any of the emotional baggage that can come when a player comes off a poor season. He's remarkably upbeat after hitting well in a spring training mostly spent in the Double-A camp.

"Last year was rocky, but I was able to push through it and I'm trying to not view last year in a negative way because there are a lot of positives to take from it, like how to overcome adversity when I'm struggling by going back to the basics," Rike said.

At times last year there was a technical flaw in Rike's swing. Instead of maintaining a flat plane to his swing through the hitting zone, Rike's swing path looped as it crossed the plate, making it that much more difficult to make solid contact.

"The couple of days I've seen him hit I'm seeing someone in much greater control of his body and his swing," said Nuts' hitting coach Duane Espy. "Right now, that loop is gone. It's not there. We'll see if it stays that way but I'm very hopeful and encouraged. He's made a concerted effort to make those changes."

When Rike did make contact, it often was impressive. Of his 77 hits, 34 went for extra bases, including 11 homers. That's the kind of power that prompted the Rockies to offer a $450,000 signing bonus.

But he also struck out 147 times, so contact has to come before power on this year's priority list.

"I worked a lot in hitting the ball the opposite way, getting my swing on the right path and giving myself a lot of room to hit," Rike said. "If I hit one in the left-center gap in our ballpark, we'll run for days.

"I'm going to got to the plate relaxed and not worry about the results. If the preparation is there, then everything else will work out."

He'll still be listening to tips from coaches and teammates, both when times at the plate are good and bad. But this year he'll be doing so with a finer filter, because -- as Espy teaches -- the most important person every hitter needs to learn to listen to is himself.

"You have to determine how each of those suggestions applies to you," Rike said. "The reality is that (everyone) is telling you pretty much the same thing, they're just wording it different. You have to pick and choose what fits."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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