Last July 31, Giants first baseman Brandon Belt went hitless in three at-bats against the New York Mets to cap a trying month.
His .186 July average had included a brutal 1-for-20 trip through Atlanta and Philadelphia. He was given Aug. 1 off.
The Belt that returned to the lineup the following day, and over the next two months, was a different hitter. For the rest of the season, he batted .329, raised his OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) by more than 70 points and drove in nearly half his season RBI total (23 of 56).
Aside from "minor adjustments" to his stance, Belt recalled the changes being mostly mental – he "wasn't so worried about results, just more going out there looking to have a quality at-bat."
When he went home over the offseason, the approach stuck with him.
"It was something I thought about all winter," Belt said earlier this spring at the Giants' facility in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Tried to beat it in my head a little bit, so when I came out here it was sort of second nature."
Indeed, it appears Belt picked up right where he left off. His torrid Cactus League start never cooled, and he finished with a .448 average and eight home runs. More quietly, teammate Brandon Crawford broke camp having batted .357 in Arizona, with seven of his 20 hits going for extra bases.
Spring fortunes, of course, can quickly change direction in the regular season. But it was a promising sign for the Giants' two homegrown Brandons, who share more in common than a name. Both debuted in 2011 and became everyday players last season. Both will be looked upon to continue the improvement they showed in the second half of 2012.
Crawford, who came out of that late-July game against the Mets batting .233, also heated up in August, hitting .285 down the stretch.
"I just got more confident in my ability, I think," Crawford said. "(Manager Bruce) Bochy kept putting me back in the lineup even when I was struggling, and I think that just kind of helped me realize I can play up here and I can still contribute."
Crawford finished the season with a .248 average – one hit shy of a round .250 – batting primarily in the eighth spot.
"With the defense he gives you," Bochy said, "you take that."
Still, in a lineup of mostly established veterans, the two arguably have the most room for growth. As a corner infielder, Belt is "critical for our offense and the success of it," Bochy said. And while Crawford's defense at shortstop is his hallmark, he said he'd like to shake the stigma that it's his only asset.
"I've definitely heard I'm a defense-first shortstop," Crawford said. "I'd like my offense to catch up as well."
Crawford said he made a point in Arizona of listening to teammates Marco Scutaro and Buster Posey around the batting cage. He stopped short of copying Scutaro's minimalist swing but picked up "approach stuff," such as patience on outside pitches.
One of the main questions facing Belt, meanwhile, was only magnified by his power surge in the Cactus League. After hitting nine home runs in 187 at-bats as a rookie in 2011, Belt hit seven last year in 411 at-bats, and many wonder if this will be the year his power flourishes.
"Those kind of come when you get into a groove," Belt said of home runs.
"That's the way I've always been. Once I get into a groove and kind of get comfortable up there I start to drive the ball a little more, and I think I'm starting the year right as far as that goes, just being comfortable in the box and confident."
No doubt Belt would rather not wait as long for his first homer as he did last year, when he ended the drought June 12 – several innings after pitcher Madison Bumgarner hit his first of the season. But in the interim, Belt said, he won't be dwelling on it.
"That's always been my goal is to drive in runs," Belt said. "I think a lot of people focus on the home run part. But for me it's more about driving in runs and creating runs – however I can do it."