CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The outcome was precisely as planned.
Jackie Bradley Jr. flicked his bat through the strike zone, the barrel meeting squarely with a Cliff Lee fastball at the knees. He drove the pitch to left field, elevating it into a jet stream that would help it carry over the wall in left field, the home run against the 2008 American League Cy Young winner adding yet another line to the long list of remarkable impressions made by the 22-year-old outfielder this spring.
The outcome, of course, was what was visible. But it was the process to achieve it that may have been most impressive. For there was nothing accidental about Bradley finding a way to slam a ball to the opposite field against a pitcher who is viewed as one of the best in the game.
The preparation for such a moment, in some respects, began almost a decade ago in Prince George, Va. It was at that point that Bradley and a man whom he describes as his baseball mentor, Donnie Brittingham, decided that it was time for Bradley -- then in eighth grade and playing for his middle school team -- to refine his approach as a hitter by learning to hit the ball to the opposite field.
It was a task that the young outfielder embraced, the sort of specific, detailed guidance for which his thirst was endless.
"Even at that young of an age, I still knew what I was doing. I knew I wanted to refine some things," explained Bradley. "I was really pull happy. At a younger age, you want to pull everything. You don't want to get beat by anything."
And so, Bradley and Brittingham worked purposefully to address the deficiency. The two set about broadening Bradley's skill set to make him a better hitter, one who could not merely pull the ball but also one who would stay up the middle on pitches over the plate, and who could put a charge on pitches away by driving them to left field.
"His whole eighth grade year in middle school, that's what we concentrated on. That year was devoted to hitting the ball to the opposite field," said Brittingham. "Learn to think up the middle, stay on the outside pitch, you won't over rotate and you'll learn to hit for power to left field."
Through soft toss and work on the tee placing the ball deeper over the plate, Bradley learned to get his hands inside the ball and drive it to the opposite field, reducing his rotation and positioning his body to be able to impact the ball while hitting it to left. Bradley was just 13 going on 14, yet his work was purposeful, precise and done with a goal in mind: to put in the effort to forge a well-rounded baseball player. In moments such as those Sunday against the Phillies, the value of such work reverberates nearly a decade after the fact.
Bradley's hunger to learn about the game and to improve from a young age seemed boundless. That trait, in turn, laid the foundation for the player whose feel for the game has been so eye-opening this spring, helping to explain how a player with just one full season of professional baseball experience can look like one of the best players on the same field as older and more experienced players.
It's no accident. Bradley's eagerness for instruction as a means of self-betterment, and his embrace of the challenge of proving himself against older competition, has systematically steered him toward this revelatory spring.
Bradley was still playing Little League when he moved from Richmond to Prince George. It was there that Brittingham first encountered the scrawny 10-year-old who proved a shut-down defender -- from an unexpected position.
"Even back when he was a real little kid, even though he was small and thin, he had that juice that a kid has that the game comes naturally to him. I'm sitting there watching him beat us -- from behind the plate at the time. He was catching," recalled Brittingham. "He pitched, then went behind the plate. Of course he threw the ball right by everybody. He was thin as could be. He was like a little willow out there on the mound, but he threw the ball right by us. Then they put him behind the plate. When we got guys on, we couldn't steal or run.
"Here came a kid who was basically beating my team by himself," he continued. "I said, 'Let me talk to this young man.' We got to know each other a little bit not as adversaries but as someone who respected what he had deep down in him."
Brittingham has a deep passion for the game. He lacked the size (he described himself as 5-foot-4) and native athletic talent to compete at a high level, but his enthusiasm for the nuances of the game is far-reaching, helping to explain his year-round coaching schedule.
In Bradley, even as a 10-year-old, he found a like-minded individual. Though just in Little League, in that first conversation, the young player made it clear that his comprehension of the sport was more sophisticated than that of many players whom Brittingham coached in high school.
It wasn't until eighth grade that Brittingham got the opportunity to start coaching the young talent. By that time, Bradley had been moved from catcher to shortstop in deference to his arm strength, quickness and fluidity.
But in his first middle school game, a ballpark's unique dimensions -- or lack thereof -- resulted in a path-setting change.
"Our first game was at a field with no fence in the outfield. It was against one of the more powerful teams in the area," Brittingham remembered. "I said, 'Let me try him in center field. There's no fence. So when the ball gets hit to center field, if it gets by, it's gone.' So I put him in center field, and sure enough, he ran down everything. Nothing -- nothing -- got past him. From that point on, we started working outfield.
"That was pretty much the day it happened -- the first day, first game in middle school. When he handled the outfield with no fence, I said this is where we probably need to be. From that point on, we made it a going concern to make sure he got comfortable and learned everything there could be about playing outfield. That was it -- no fence. No fence is the reason he's out there playing center field."
Bradley wanted instruction. And so he commenced one of the most notable examples of the training that has cultivated what most view as tremendous defensive instincts.
Brittingham and Bradley would stand together in the outfield during batting practice. Their conversations never turned to idle chatter. Instead, they broke down what was transpiring in front of them.
"We would sit and watch and start learning to react to the ball out of the pitcher's hand, to the bat, started learning to read the ball more off the bat, learned to react," said Brittingham. "Everybody gets a kick out of the 'power shagging' [Bradley's all-out approach to chase down everything he can during batting practice while replicating game situations]. He started doing that as a little kid.
"One of the first things we learned on was getting a read. When I watch him, when I'm at a game or when he was back here playing, I would have one eye on the pitcher and the batter. Out of the side of my eye, I could always see Jack moving with the pitch. He's always moving as the pitcher releases the ball. Excellent footwork on the delivery, he reads the ball into the dirt, when it goes outside. These are the things he did day after day after day during batting practice. He just didn't do it like most kids, one day or two days a week or a year. He's been doing that every day since eighth grade."
He would stay after the conclusion of practice, seeking more work, more repetitions. He wanted to know more about getting reads based on the ball coming out of the pitcher's hands, wanted to improve his drop step and crossover step to improve his burst to the ball, tried to master the best angles and routes to take to fly balls.
Because Bradley would stay late, Brittingham often gave him rides home. The discussion remained focused on the game, to the point where the student continually challenged the coach to find answers that he did not have readily available. After being dropped off, Bradley would then set about his own program, running on flat ground and uphill to build endurance and speed.
"He just loves to learn," said Brittingham. "There was just no end to the bucket. You could just keep pouring more and more in. Most kids would say, 'Enough.' He'd say, 'More.' He just loves to learn."
That, in turn, laid the groundwork for a fascinatingly detailed course of instruction tailored to Bradley's skill set. After his freshman year of high school, Bradley and Brittingham went back to the drawing board to define the next step in his development.
"I had pretty good year, but it was like, 'I'm still hungry -- what can I learn?' Two strikes," said Bradley. "[Brittingham] said, 'What do you think about it?' I said, 'I feel like I have a good idea of the strike zone and I want to refine it and make it better.' "
Thus came one of the more novel undertakings imaginable for a player that young. Bradley and Brittingham devised a plan that in American Legion ball that summer, despite the fact that he was playing against considerably older competition -- including some players who were entering college -- he would not swing until a count got to two strikes.
"Being in American Legion, it would have been easy for him to be affected by what I call newspaper ball playing, a grip-and-rip kid," said Brittingham. "Everyone's looking to hit home runs. Everyone's looking for big numbers, first-pitch swinging. We sat and talked one night while I was driving him back from an American Legion game. I said, Jack, these guys on your team, most of them don't get the game. They're just big and strong, most of them. The really good hitters are the guys that can hit with two strikes. Maybe this is the next thing you need to do if you're going to compete against these guys."
Bradley was on board. He would not swing until he was down to his last strike, thus forcing a pitcher to work in the strike zone, and only then would he begin to spoil two-strike pitches until the pitcher gave him something he could attack.
"I'm not going to say I didn't strike out," said Bradley, whom Brittingham recalled was hitting nearly .400 until the last days of that summer season. "But I felt like I had more quality at-bats by doing it and I made the pitcher work."
He performed well, but still, there was a compromise of short-term personal statistics. But that wasn't an issue for the young player, who accepted both the longer view of his development as a better player -- seeing more gain in banging a single to left on a 1-2 pitch than in trying to turn on a 2-0 fastball for a homer -- and the team concept that there was value in aspects of the game like advancing the runner even if it entailed self-sacrifice of his numbers. There was always a broader view.
And, of course, there was always more to learn.
"We broke the game down, every little facet we could, and devoted our time and energy to getting excellent at that one thing and then moved on to get better from there," said Brittingham. "He was able to learn all sorts of things, and he was always asking: What's next? What's new?"
The interest was insatiable. Bradley was a good student, and a talented athlete in other sports, but his willingness to improve in baseball was boundless. He became, in essence, the anti-Iverson, a player who took incredible pleasure in the work that took place outside of the game, the value of building a foundation on which he could thrive when the results mattered.
"For him, practice was everything. Learning to love to practice, whether it was just the two of us or a few or us or the team or in a camp situation, he loved to practice," said Brittingham. "There's so many nuances to the game. I think that's what really attracted him to the game over other games."
Baseball was a year-round undertaking, with Bradley playing not just on his middle school and Prince George High School teams in the spring but also playing fall baseball as well as two summer-league seasons (both 16- and 18-year-old) while growing up. Brittingham was either the coach or assistant coach on all of those teams, and so he could work with Bradley -- whom he refers to as being like a family member -- on very specific aspects of his game.
Thus, there was an opportunity to introduce Bradley to every spot in the lineup in hopes of understanding the different responsibilities of every position in the batting order and how to implement a plan of attack to contribute from each position.
In his final years of high school, Bradley concentrated on work against off-speed pitches and breaking balls. His coaches would have curveball rounds of batting practice to train him not to chase off-speed stuff out of the zone, and instead to stay back and stay inside of off-speed pitches. (He would further advance his work in breaking ball recognition in college, where Bradley would sit on off-speed pitches and trust his hands to adjust to fastballs.)
The work in middle school and high school provided Bradley with a foundation like few other teenagers, even if it had entailed some sacrifice of personal statistics. By the time he reached the University of South Carolina, however, Bradley's feel for the game started to yield eye-opening results (most notably, his College World Series MVP award as a sophomore).
He helped lead USC to two straight national championships, and players looked up to him as their unquestioned leader. Indeed, Brittingham was elated to see members of the Gamecocks shadowing Bradley during his batting practice power shagging sessions, trying to gain from his sophisticated view of the game.
Bradley's instincts turned him into a college star and an early selection in the 2011 draft. Brittingham held his breath while with Bradley and his family during the draft, hoping that the team for whom he'd spent the better part of a half-century rooting -- the Red Sox -- would take him.
The Sox had four of the first 40 picks that year: the No. 19 overall pick, the No. 26 selection and the Nos. 32 and 40 picks in the supplemental first round.
"On draft day, when the first round ended, for one of the first times, I was upset with my team. But during the supplemental round, when Jim Rice got up there and he said that name ..." recalled Brittingham. "It's more than anybody deserves to dream about, because he is like one of my kids. For the Red Sox to have drafted him, for the people of Boston and all the minor league stops to have embraced him. ... I'm still on guard. I try for it not to be too much. But this is like a dream come true."
Bradley, to borrow his own phraseology, "pushed the envelope" in his first pro season, dominating in High-A Salem and earning a second-half promotion to Double-A Portland where he was outstanding early but then saw his numbers fade while he tired down the stretch. Still, the skill set to blitz through the Sox system -- perhaps as soon as Opening Day -- was cultivated, and is now under spotlight as the headline of the team's spring training.
But there are still goals. Bradley still sees avenues for improvement.
For instance, since he struggled as a college junior (something for which the Red Sox are constantly thankful, given that it positioned the outfielder for a draft-day slide that brought him to Boston with the 40th overall selection in 2011) when he became somewhat pull-happy, Bradley has returned to the emphasis that he first placed as a teenager on hitting the ball to the opposite field. This past winter, he shifted his focus from hitting the ball to left field to driving it in that direction.
It's yielding obvious fruit. This spring, the vast majority of his 22 hits (en route to a .423 average, .508 OBP, .615 slugging mark and 1.023 OPS) have been up the middle or to left field. His home run to left in a left-on-left matchup with Lee further reinforced the soundness of his approach.
"I've really focused on trying to drive the ball to the opposite field, hit it with authority, since coming into professional baseball, people said I was a little pull-happy. I've made it known that I'm going to work on going opposite field, hitting up the middle, taking the ball all over the field," said Bradley. "I harped on it during the offseason and it's paying dividends."
There's more. Bradley has always been mindful of the importance of footwork, doing ladder drills since his high school days with an eye toward improving his breaks both on the bases and in the outfield.
This offseason, he continued his focus on footwork in hopes of turning himself into a more prolific base-stealer. He swiped 24 bags in 33 attempts in 2012 -- solid marks, to be sure, particularly for a player who doesn't have what would be considered above-average speed -- but he believes that, within the rhythm of the game, he has the ability to do more.
"I know I can steal bases. I want the opportunity that best fits me. I want to get very, very comfortable with it. You don't have to have a whole lot of speed to steal a base," said Bradley. "I feel like I'm well-suited to steal a base whenever I need to, but I don't want to just go out there running just to run. I want to have a purpose when I'm stealing a base. I want to pick up timing, tendencies, stuff like that. Hopefully I can be a 30-plus, 40 guy. I know I can do it. It's just working at it."
That is the sort of attitude that has characterized Bradley's self-created fast track to the big leagues: Identify either a deficiency or a potential area of improvement, figure out ways of training to help address it, and through repetition and focused study, add another dimension to his game.
The results this spring, in which Bradley's wide-ranging talents have been constantly apparent, have been nothing short of striking. Yet as significant as his performance has been, Bradley's approach to camp -- constantly trying to pick up nuances of the game from coaches and teammates (it's worth noting, for instance, that Bradley now believes that he now can replicate the entirety of Jacoby Ellsbury's meticulous pregame work) -- has been just as eye-opening.
He is not merely talented but also driven to continue to improve. And so, as dazzling as he's been already, this spring appears even more impressive for the fact that it represents the first impression of a young player's considerable skill set, presumably a point in an upward trajectory rather than its end point.
"Why wouldn't you want the help? If it's going to make you better in the long run, I'm all for it. If you can pick up a small thing from somebody else that's inevitably going to help your game," said Bradley. "A pitcher can tell you about a sequence, how he'd throw to you. You'll ask why he'd do that. He'll say, 'You tend to dive after that fastball, tend to go out and get it. So I'll get you on a curveball.'
"That helps get me to think. You're sharp, thinking ahead of the game, processing things faster. That's what allows me to make adjustments so quickly and on the fly is that I've been learning, taking up everything like a sponge."
From afar, for someone like Brittingham, the opportunity to see a protegee like Bradley thrive has been nothing short of elating. Brittingham does not have a computer, but his son regularly apprises him of both the Red Sox outfielder's on-field exploits and the glowing depictions of his feel for the game.
It is a doubly pleasing development for Brittingham given that he has been a Red Sox fan since the Impossible Dream season of 1967. The idea of seeing Bradley at Fenway Park ... it renders the coach emotional.
"This has been and continues to be one of the joys of my life," said Brittingham. "Whenever you get a kid like this, you really learn to appreciate what you do. I'll be honest, he's made the game fun for me. I'm just so happy that you guys up in Boston have embraced him and hopefully I'll get to Fenway one day. I haven't been there since 1989. Hopefully I'll be getting up to Boston before too long."
That is no small concession. Brittingham has never been on a plane, is terrified of the concept. When Bradley played in the College World Series, the coach would drive the 22 hours each way to and from Omaha.
But if and when Bradley gets a big league opportunity, perhaps in the coming weeks, there's a very good chance that Brittingham won't have the available time to drive up the East Coast to Boston. (If Bradley makes the Opening Day roster, Brittingham suggests, he would have no interest in going to Yankee Stadium on principle.)
And so, Brittingham is ready to yield -- albeit reluctantly. The coach is cautious about what he says, not wanting to jinx Bradley's big league opportunity, but for a pupil such as this, there are times when he cannot help himself.
"I don't want to say anything about him going any further, but most people don't deserve what I've been able to experience because of him, like going to Omaha to see the College World Series," said Brittingham. "I'm going to have to plan for my first plane ride, I guess. I'm going to have to man up and get on a plane if he ever does go to Boston. I'll get on an airplane to go to Boston."
It seems only fair, then, that Bradley is so close to offering Brittingham his own learning experience.