Philipsburg’s Adams continues to improve for St. Louis

Philipsburg native Matt Adams is hitting .304 with 14 doubles through 43 games at first base for the St. Louis Cardinals this spring.
Philipsburg native Matt Adams is hitting .304 with 14 doubles through 43 games at first base for the St. Louis Cardinals this spring. AP file photo

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams’ strong start to this season can be traced back to Centre County.

Adams spent his offseason training at Victory Sports Performance and Fitness, a gym that sits in a State College shopping center off S. Atherton St.

This is where Adams worked to transform his diet and shed weight while climbing the final rungs of the minor-league ladder. It’s where Adams trained five days a week during the winter, determined to ensure his breakout 2013 season was only the beginning of long, productive career.

Twenty-five miles away, in his hometown of Philipsburg, Adams often worked to perfect his swing at the YMCA batting cages.

This is where he blossomed from Philipsburg-Osceola standout to Division II Player of the Year at Slippery Rock, to major league slugger, all under watchful eye of the same hitting coach. It’s where he spent many nights during the winter, sharpening his approach at the plate, determined to improve after hitting .284 with 17 home runs in 108 games while helping the Cardinals reach the World Series.

“I went into spring training knowing that I was still having to fight for a job,” Adams said in the visitors’ clubhouse at PNC Park in Pittsburgh last Sunday. “And I just wanted to build off the year that I had last year.”

To prepare, Adams returned home and surrounded himself with the same people who helped him reach the majors.

He worked with trainer Rob Oshinskie at Victory Sports Performance and Fitness for the third straight offseason, before sessions with longtime hitting coach Justin Hazelton, often at the local YMCA. Adams is comfortable with Oshinskie and Hazelton, and he’s seen results every offseason. Plus, it allows him to stay close to his family and friends.

So far, his work has paid off.

Adams has played in all but one of the Cardinals’ 43 games this season. He’s second amongst the team’s starters with a .304 batting average and leads the Cardinals with 14 doubles.

“It’s been pretty neat,” Hazelton said of watching Adams’ success. “I check the box score pretty much every day or stay up late at night to check it after the game. I’m pretty proud of him and I know a lot of people are. He’s really put in the time and it’s paying off.”

Adams began training with Oshinskie in October 2011.

He had just earned Texas League MVP honors with the Class AA Springfield Cardinals and arrived at the gym weighing 284 pounds with very little experience in strength training.

Losing weight was a priority during the first two offseasons.

That was no longer the case when they started preparation for this year. Oshinskie suggested a plan that would make Adams more versatile after starting just 63 games at first base in 2013, serving as a backup to Allen Craig with Carlos Beltran manning right field.

“We need to get you as fast as we can, so the Cardinals view you as someone who can play right field and is not a liability,” Oshinskie told Adams. “If that’s the case, then you have a spot. Even if it’s short-lived, now all of the sudden, you’ve proven to the rest of the major leagues that you can play both first base and right field.”

The 6-foot-3 slugger told Oshinskie he was on board.

Adams was ready for anything because he didn’t want to be a “flash in the pan,” whose life story was about the one shot he got in the big leagues. He wants to stick around for 10 to 15 years.

So two days a week, Oshinskie put Adams through lower-body power training workouts. Another two days were geared toward the upper body. On the fifth day, Adams did an intensive conditioning workout called GPP, an acronym for General Physical Preparedness coined by the Soviet Union.

The GPP workouts consisted of brief but intense exercises like slamming a medicine ball on the floor and lateral shuffle drills. He’d then do another GPP workout on his own on Saturdays.

Oshinskie has seen results from Adams who is down to a playing weight of 260 pounds.

“He has a triple this year,” Oshinskie said. “There have been at least two instances where I’ve watched him on TV and the announcers have said, ‘Wow, Matt Adams got down that line a lot faster than I expected to see him run.’ Matt picked up a substantial amount of speed this offseason.”

Beltran signed with New York Yankees, Craig moved to right field and Adams secured the starting spot at first base after aiming to get in better shape before spring training.

“I did that,” Adams said, “and just made sure that I kept improving my hitting and defense and needed to get it where it needed to be.”

Adams honed his hitting with Hazelton as he has since his first lessons at the YMCA when he was 12.

He worked with him through college and his rise through the minors. Adams was sure to call Hazelton from an airport on May 20, 2012, to let him know he made it to the majors, an emotional day that continued when Hazelton watched his debut against the Los Angeles Dodgers with Adams’ parents at their home.

It’s still special for Hazelton to turn on the television to watch Adams take his hacks all summer. The hitting instructor knows how much went into his sweet swing.

They hit wherever they can find a cage, sometimes traveling to Stormstown, but often meeting at the YMCA in Philipsburg. This past year, Adams rounded out his approach, trying to hit to all fields after seeing defensive shifts in 2013.

Hazelton said Adams left Philipsburg for Florida in the best shape of his life and improved as a hitter.

“Being in the major leagues last year for the full year and being in the World Series,” said Hazelton, who played professional baseball, “I think that he got a real good taste of how it is up there and he was probably more focused than ever this past offseason.”

If there was any doubt, Adams has proved he belongs in the big leagues again. He’s been ranked in the top 20 in the National League in hitting throughout the first two months of the season.

Through his success, Oshinskie and Hazelton say he’s remained humble, always willing to take the time for kids and fans.

Adams is grateful for the support from his hometown, but until he returns home again this offseason, he’s focused on producing every day for the Cardinals.

“There’s times that you take a step back and you realize where you’re at and it’s just cool coming from a small town in Philipsburg and being on this big stage,” Adams said. “But you can’t get caught up in all that, you got to put those thoughts away and continue to go about your business and go out there each night and compete.”