San Francisco Giants

Carter, formerly of A’s, contends for major-league home run title

Chris Carter paused when asked to recall the last time he’d experienced such a prolonged stretch of productive hitting.

“Not in the majors,” Carter said Wednesday. “Maybe in Double A?”

A’s fans might remember those days, when Carter was slugging his way up Oakland’s minor-league system, seemingly destined to one day display his power regularly at Coliseum. That never materialized: Carter struggled in brief call-ups in 2010 and 2011 before hitting 16 home runs in 67 games in 2012, then was traded to the Houston Astros that offseason.

While Carter led the Astros with 29 homers in his first season in Houston, that number was largely overshadowed by his majors-leading 212 strikeouts, the third-highest total ever in a season. This year, though, the strikeout numbers are down. And Carter, thanks to a torrid second half, has put himself in position to spend the final month of the season chasing an improbable home run crown.

Carter, who played parts of four seasons with the River Cats (2009-12), homered twice in the Astros’ 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday to enter Friday’s series opener against the A’s with 35 on the year, two behind major-league leader Nelson Cruz. It gave the 27-year-old Carter seven multihomer games in 2014, a franchise record, and 22 home runs since July 1, the most in the majors in that span.

“We’ve always thought he could do this,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said before Friday’s game. “We’ve seen it in the past here, whether it was in the minor leagues. ... It took him a little while; usually his second halves were better than his first halves. But the potential was always there, especially on the power end.”

On June 30, Carter was batting .184 and out of the Astros’ lineup for a second consecutive game after striking out four times against the Detroit Tigers on June 28. But in a span of 53 games beginning July 1 and entering Friday, he had hit .286 while leading the majors in home runs (22), slugging percentage (.613) and RBIs (52).

The soft-spoken Carter gave a characteristic answer when asked why his power numbers are flourishing now.

“I think it’s just all the work I’ve done in the cage with hitting coach John Mallee,” he said, “just shortening my swing and being more direct to the ball. … It’s been just little things.”

Mallee offered a more expansive explanation. Along with settling into his second season as an everyday player and being more familiar with the pitchers he’s facing, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Carter has “worked really hard to get his swing much shorter, more direct,” Mallee said. “He’s using the whole field now instead of trying to pull everything. And he’s staying in the strike zone and not expanding a lot, which is why his strikeouts are down.”

When Carter was struggling last season, Mallee said, he would shift his weight too early to his front side, resulting in a longer, loopier swing path that contributed to his strikeout total.

“Now when his (front) foot hits the ground, his sequencing in his swing is better, and he’s staying behind the ball better,” Mallee said. “He’s just taking his hands, making more of a straight line to the ball.”

The strikeout improvement is relative – Carter began Friday seventh in the majors with 154, striking out in 31.7 percent of his at-bats compared with 36.2 percent in 2013. But he had raised his average nearly 50 points since the start of July to .231 and had the majors’ best home run rate – one every 12.5 at-bats – while helping spur an Astros team that also has been playing better lately.

Despite firing manager Bo Porter earlier this week, Houston has a winning record since Aug. 1, a far cry from last season, when the Astros lost their final 15 games en route to their third consecutive 100-loss season. Overall, Carter said, the mood in Houston is “a lot more fun now” compared to 2013.

“Last year, I got beat up on the strikeouts and how the team was playing,” Carter said. “It was a rough end to the season, but that’s something you’ve got to put in the past and keep moving forward.”

The Astros remain well under .500, but they’re capable of playing spoiler in September, starting with this weekend’s series in Oakland. Carter has performed particularly well this season against his former team – he had hit six homers with 17 RBIs in his first 15 games against the A’s, his most against any team – but shrugged off any ideas about added motivation.

“I don’t think there’s anything to it,” Carter said. “I think that’s just how it’s happened this year.”

And as for the home run race? If Carter does remain a factor over the next several weeks, he’ll do so in a fitting manner – quietly.

“It’s nice to see but something I’m not really thinking about,” Carter said. “Just trying to have good at-bats and put the barrel on the ball every time.”

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