By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
PHOENIX — willy adames was the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays‘last hope, and he didn’t have much hope.
As Adames approached home plate with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series, his swing was so out of sorts that he was desperate to make contact with the first pitch.
He swung, hard, at Dodgers lefty Julio Urías’ offering. He missed it and made a concern face.
“At that point,” Adames said 17 months later, “I knew I had no luck.”
Adames was still standing in the batter’s box, but he was not batting. No matter what Urías threw next, he said, he was not going to move.
“It’s so messed up that I wasn’t gonna swing, no matter what,” Adames said. “I was out after the first swing.”
Urías quickly fired two fastballs for called strikes, and the Dodgers became champions. Adames retired to his dugout without a word of protest. Their joy was his pain.
When Urías saw Adames for the first time the next season, the pitcher couldn’t help but reveal his strategy.
“You didn’t look good last year,” Urías told him. “We knew we had to attack you.”
Adames was not surprised to hear that review.
“When someone is not good at the plate, you can see it in their face,” he said. “I don’t know how it works, but you see it. And, for me, I think everybody knew.”
Even so, as he relayed that conversation, as he thought back to the slump he suffered at the worst possible time, Adames shook his head.
“What are you gonna do with that?” he asked. “You just gotta get better.”
After a change of circumstances, Adames has gotten much better. Now, the 26-year-old shortstop is on the verge of stardom. Following a May 2021 trade to Milwaukee, he has been one of the sport’s most valuable players. At 3.9 Wins Above Replacement, FanGraphs measured his Brewers tenure as exactly as valuable as that of Shohei Ohtani, the position player, during that span.
The Brewers are this season’s unheralded World Series contender, and Adames is their sneaky star and clubhouse leader. He could have a chance at postseason redemption in seven months.
He has thought about it every day since he struck out looking.
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The day he returned home from that World Series bubble, Adames called his agent. Then he dialed a hitting coach, Lorenzo Garmendia, who was recommended by Dodgers star Mookie Betts.
Adames wanted to get to work, to rid himself of the feeling of failure. He set out revamping his swing by moving his hands closer to his body and regaining his confidence by practicing to exhaustion.
“I knew that I had to do something different, and I had to make an adjustment for the next year,” he said. “I was sad and mad at myself. But at the same time, I felt motivated to do better.”
Adames has always located unusual levels of motivation. After signing with the Detroit Tigers at 16 out of his native Dominican Republic, he worked to learn English so he could communicate with his teammates. He has long since achieved fluency. He then made the majors at 22 after a consistent rise through two organizations (the Tigers had traded him to Tampa in a three-team deadline deal in 2014).
The 2020 postseason, then, marked the first sustained struggle of his career. His response was a redoubling.
“His work ethic was already good,” said Mike Brosseau, a teammate with the Rays, and, now, the Brewers. “The next spring training, it was night and day.”
But when the season began, Adames was unsuccessful. He always hit far worse at Tropicana Field than on the road, because of what he has described as difficulty with the stadium’s batter’s eye. He simply had trouble discerning pitches based on the background. Plenty of hitters are far better at home than on the road; few display the opposite splits. Adames was a rarity.
The Rays traded him for two relievers because of that rarity, and because super-prospect Wander Franco was ready to seize his spot.
In Milwaukee, Adames became the double-play partner of Kolten Wong, who had his own story to tell about failing on baseball’s biggest stage. When Wong was a 23-year-old rookie, he was picked off first base to end Game 4 of the 2013 World Series. It remains the only time a postseason game ended on a pickoff. Wong could not escape the feeling that he had let his family down and embarrassed himself for good.
For days afterwards, he felt hungover. Brain fog lingered even longer.
“I feel like I had a form of depression for a couple years,” Wong said.
During those years, he established himself as a big leaguer, but not one operating at the top of his game. He didn’t talk about what was hindering him. It took until 2016, he said, for him to even realize it was.
“This was still kind of old-school baseball,” Wong said. “Vulnerability kind of came off as weakness. So, really, trying to ask questions was not socially acceptable at the time.”
Then he started to think of the pickoff as a welcome part of his past. He had traversed that; what couldn’t he endure? He tried to impart that concept on Adames.
“You can take it in a good way and understand that you have to get better from it and take another step forward, or you can allow it to hinder you and be in the back of your head the rest of your career, beating you down ,” Wong said. “From what I’ve seen from Willy, he’s definitely taken a step forward, trying to learn from it and get better.”
In part because of their shared experience, Wong and Adames became fast friends. It helped that Adames had roomed with Wong’s younger brother, Kean, in the minors. It also helped that the gregarious Adames befriends the majority of people he meets.
Last winter, the two worked out together at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, not far from the Brewers’ training facility. Milwaukee third baseman Luis Urías also attended. There, like in their normal clubhouse, Adames was the most vocal of the bunch.
“The intensity that comes with him, I’ve never had that before on a team,” Wong said. “You have your loud, funny guys, but never somebody who you can actually feel the leadership coming through.”
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Before the lockout ended, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projected the Brewers for 97.4 wins in 2022 — the best in the sport. Part of that is the expected weakness of the rest of the NL Central. The Cardinals are missing key pitchers. The Pirates are still rebuilding. The Cubs are building back but probably at least a year away. No one knows what the Reds are doing.
If the Brewers are to approach that win total, it will be in large part because of their elite pitching staff. No other team has three starters who so dominated the sport last season like Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta. Solid options beyond them, too.
But the team’s offense will follow Adames’ lead, as it did last season. He had 20 homers and 58 RBIs in just 99 games with Milwaukee. Adames, more than Christian Yelich, is now the Brewers’ pacesetter, though a Yelich rebound would help their chances.
Adames is simply a much louder personality, a more charismatic, natural leader than Yelich. One day this month at spring training, he danced to Chimbala and Bulin 47’s rhythmic “El Juidero” in between batting-practice sessions. Soon, teammates in his hitting group joined him.
“The energy, the life, the charisma, enthusiasm,” Brosseau said, “that’s visible right away when you meet Willy.”
Besides his unceasing energy, Adames is known within the Brewers for beating everyone to the half-field for infield practice, and for his marathon sessions in the batting cage. “Almost too long,” Brosseau said.
Those sessions have a purpose. Adames uses all that time to commit himself to an approach, to convince himself that he can handle the inevitable downturns.
“When I get into a slump, I’m not gonna try to change my swing completely in that moment,” Adames said. “Because that’s what happened there.”
He will never forget what happened there, when he was a few swings from fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a champion, when he doubted that he could do it, when everyone watching saw that self-doubt. Even if he wanted to forget it, he could never.
“I see it every day,” Adames said. “Every time they show the highlight of the World Series, I’m there. For me, it’s still motivating me. I’m gonna be in history. I’m gonna see myself there even when I’m 60 years old.
“Every time I see it, it gets in my mind, like, ‘Remember, that was you, so you gotta continue to get better.'”
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He most recently covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic. Previously, he spent five years covering the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and LA Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.
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