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McLouth looking to overcome struggles

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — Wearing a new set of contact lenses, Nate McLouth has been able to see the ball better than ever this spring.

That doesn't mean, however, that the Atlanta center fielder has been able to hit it.

Mired in a 0 for 28 slump with 12 strikeouts, McLouth batted in every inning of a rain-shorted minor league game Sunday in hopes of getting on track with the start of the season two weeks away.

McLouth got three hits — two more than he's had in real spring games. Maybe the move worked. Finally, he had something positive to build on.

"I just needed to step away," said McLouth, batting .029. "Hitting is a funny thing. It can wear on you, even in spring training when numbers don't matter — because they do.

"Not necessarily numbers, but feeling well and making good contact matters. And when that's not happening, regardless of whether it's spring training or not, that's frustrating."

Frustrating for McLouth and worrisome for the Braves. They are counting on him to be their leadoff hitter.

How bad has McLouth been this spring? His one hit in 35 at-bats came on March 6 and he has 14 strikeouts and three walks, striking out twice in five of his past eight games.

McLouth needed to take a step back before he could move forward. When manager Bobby Cox and hitting coach Terry Pendleton brought up batting every inning in a minor league game, McLouth agreed.

"That's what needed to be done," said McLouth, who got a low-pressure situation to keep trying the things he has been working on with Pendleton.

"It was good. I felt great at the plate, made good contact ... it was a big step forward."

Pendleton said that McLouth's troubles stem from "collapsing" during his swing, a habit he fell into late last season. The left-handed hitter has been bending his knees too much during his stride, forcing him to reach for pitches.

"Being on time," McLouth said. "That's really what I've been struggling with, my timing. ... It's being on time and being in the right position when the pitch is in the zone to take a good swing.

"If you're late, then all of a sudden you're rushing to get to the ball and things are breaking down. ... It's not like it's not frustrating because it's spring training. It's not like I'm not trying to fix it. It's just something that's difficult to do."

The 28-year-old McLouth didn't hit as well as expected after being acquired from Pittsburgh in early June, but that was blamed on hamstring problems that forced him to miss time and a bout with blurred vision.

Now his legs are 100 percent and his vision is improved with contacts. The only thing wrong with the former National League All-Star is his spring batting average.

The Braves have Melky Cabrera, acquired from the Yankees in the deal for Javier Vazquez, available for center field, but remain committed to McLouth.

"He's just pressing a little bit," manager Bobby Cox said. "That's why giving him some extra at-bats in a minor league game was good."

"When you're preparing or a season, you want to feel comfortable and make progress toward opening day," McLouth said. "I'm not going to stop working ... until I'm ready."

Notes: Jair Jurrjens pitched in a Triple-A game Monday for Gwinnett against Toledo, working four innings and throwing 55 pitches. He gave up two runs and five hits, hitting two batters and striking out three. Jurrjens, third in the National League with a 2.60 ERA last season, was sidelined by a sore shoulder at the start of camp, but is on schedule to make his first start April 7 against the Chicago Cubs. ... Monday was the Braves' only scheduled day off of the spring.