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Axe Bat gives Suzuki more pop

Minnesota Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki hits a single against the New York Yankees June 16 at Target Field. (Photo by Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports)

MINNEAPOLIS -- On a blazing hot Saturday afternoon at Target Field, Kurt Suzuki seemed to have no trouble catching up to Aroldis Chapman’s 102-mph fastball.

After fouling off four straight two-strike offerings at that unthinkable velocity from the New York Yankees closer, the Twins catcher put the next fastball in the second deck in left field.

“Impressive” was the term both Twins general manager Terry Ryan and manager Paul Molitor used to describe Suzuki’s at-bat.

“He fought off a bunch of tough pitches and got a pitch he could handle and I’ll be darned if he didn’t hit it in the second tank,” Ryan said a day later, shaking his head. “He handled 102.”

Then came Sunday, and a chance to face towering Yankees reliever Dellin Betances and his 100-mph fastball. After Betances fell behind with three straight balls, Molitor gave Suzuki the rare green light to swing away on 3-0.

When was the last time Suzuki was afforded that particular vote of confidence?

“College, I think?” he said with a throaty chuckle.

In fact, Suzuki doesn’t typically even look down at third-base coach Gene Glynn at such moments.

“I usually take 3-0,” Suzuki said, “but with Betances, I kind of had a feeling he might. If you do take a fastball, you might get two breaking balls. When the guy throws 100, that might be the best pitch you’re going to see.”

Suzuki smiled when recalling his reaction to the green light.

“That’s cool,” he said. “When he gave it to  me, I kind of got excited. I tried to stay calm and not go out of the zone.”

Once again, bat speed was no problem for Suzuki. He turned on Betances’ 100-mph fastball and pulled it foul down the left-field line. Two pitches later, he ripped a curveball to left for a run-scoring double.

Secret weapon

If the 32-year-old Suzuki suddenly seems to have discovered lumberjack strength, there could be an explanation for that.

Or an ax-planation, if you prefer.

Since May 31, Suzuki has exclusively used an ax-handled bat. He first swung it in a game on May 6 in Chicago, banging out two hits on a day that he began with a .196 batting average.

Since making the full-time switch, Suzuki has hit .333 and slugged .510 over his past 14 games and 52 plate appearances. That stretch has included three doubles, two homers and nine runs batted in.

“I like it,” Suzuki said. “You have to get used to it. It’s kind of similar to having a no-knob kind of thing. This is like a zero backside knob. It’s just half the knob pretty much. It’s just a feel thing, I guess.”

Developed by Seattle-based Baden Sports, which licensed the model to Victus Sports, the Axe Bat is used only by a handful of players in the majors. Former American League Most Valuable Player Dustin Pedroia and Mookie Betts, his Boston Red Sox teammate, are among recent converts.

So is young Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year, along with Chicago White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia and Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Jake Lamb.

According to Baden Sports, the Axe Bat has three main design elements: an angled knob, an oval-shaped bottom and a flush backside. The result is a bat handle that mimics that of an ax and follows the natural contours of a hitter’s wrist and palm.

The hope is that this might reduce or eliminate the type of hamate-bone injuries long associated with traditional round-handled bats. Biomechanical analysis conducted at UCLA using Division I college players found the ax-type handle improves grip stability and bat control, causing more efficient power transfer and ultimately faster bat speed.

Approved for play at all levels, the Axe Bat can be designed for T-ballers up to adult baseball players. It’s also available for slowpitch and fastpitch softball.

For Suzuki, who hit just .239 with a .321 slugging percentage in 675 at-bats from the middle of July 2014 to the middle of May, the early results have been highly encouraging.

“When I first saw it come out a few years ago, back when I was in Oakland, I was kind of like, ‘Eh, what a gimmick,’ ” Suzuki said. “Then you see more guys swinging it. I tried it, and I liked it. There were times when that Rawlings bat was feeling good, too. It’s just kind of that ebb and flow of baseball.”

When Axe Bat representatives made their annual rounds through Fort Myers, Fla., this spring, Suzuki tried out a sample model in the batting cage for a day. He asked for a bat he could take into the season.

Suzuki, who swings a 34-inch, 31-ounce bat, slowly grew more comfortable with the same model Pedroia uses.

“I was kind of messing around with it, taking it into the game here and there,” he said. “And then the last month of so I took it into the game more. A few weeks ago, they sent me a few more, and I’ve been using it every day since.”

‘It still hurts'

Ballplayers being notoriously superstitious and experimental, you might assume Suzuki’s recent hot streak would have Twins teammates lining up to borrow his ax-handled bat.

Surprisingly, that hasn’t been the case.

“In baseball, guys have their own model that they’ve stuck with,” Suzuki said. “Especially when you’ve got older guys that have been doing it for awhile. Younger guys maybe might try it.”

To this point, Suzuki remains the only Twins hitter using the Axe Bat.

“Some would say ‘gimmick’ and all that stuff, but it feels good in your hand,” Suzuki said. “If you see guys use a no-knob bat and they like the way it feels in their hand when they’re hitting, this is kind of the same thing. There’s nothing on your palm. Everything just feels like it’s an ax when you’re swinging.”

Hall of famer Ted Williams, in his classic 1970 book “The Science of Hitting,” compared the mechanics of the swing with the act of swinging an ax. At contact, Williams wrote, a hitter’s wrists should be “square and unbroken, as they would be at impact when an ax is swung on a tree.”

This passage, according to Baden Sports, provided at least part of the inspiration for the ax-handle design.

Even with quicker hands, Suzuki said it’s still possible to get jammed with the Axe Bat.

“I broke one the other night when (Yankees reliever) Andrew Miller threw me that slider,” he said. “I’ve been jammed a couple times. Same thing. It still hurts like crap.”

What can’t hurt is sticking with the new technology a little longer in hopes of putting a disappointing 2015 season fully behind him. While on pace to get just 371 plate appearances, well short of the 485 he needs to trigger a $6 million vesting option for 2017, Suzuki at minimum could make the Twins reconsider their catching plans for next season and beyond.

It’s only been three weeks, but, hey, turning around 102 is turning around 102.

“I’m probably not a guy he’s thinking will leave the yard,” Suzuki said. “He throws 102. He’s going to challenge me. I just tried to put the barrel on it. Nothing too crazy.”

An estimated 396 feet later, Suzuki’s ninth-inning blast finally landed.

“I hit that one the best I could hit it,” he said with a grin.

Hit it like a lumberjack.

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