Johnny Damon's hands are numb. Seconds ago they held 32 ounces of American Rock Maple. Now, all that's left is a few inches of handle, the rest of the bat split to shards, the barrel flying through the infield and coming to rest softly on the grass.
It's a typical situation for the leadoff hitter, whose aggressive style has produced an American League-leading .338 average this season and left dozens of bats splayed across the field. He's been in this place before, hitting well and hoping. Now, with a 12-point lead on Texas's Michael Young, a batting title is within Damon's reach and winning is definitely on his mind.
''As far as the batting title is concerned, it's Johnny's to lose," Young said. ''He's been down this road before. He's playing for a great club. I don't see him slowing down . . . I think we both take a lot of pride in knowing our best baseball is played in the last two months."
Damon's thoughts exactly. While other players wear down as the season goes on, he says he'll get better, hit harder, and be stronger. After dealing with painful at-bats because of a strained right rotator cuff suffered while making a diving catch against the Angels June 4, the center fielder has, in fact, gotten better.
Despite hitting .313 in June and .339 in July, Damon insists his plate appearances suffered. Perhaps they did -- his extra-base hits waned as he struggled with his shoulder -- but during that time, Damon compiled a 29-game hitting streak, the best in the major leagues this season.
''I want to think about [the batting title] because . . . it's up to me if I'm going to win," Damon said. ''I've got, hopefully, another 150 at-bats to go this season. I have my opportunities, I just need to be on and, hopefully, I will be. I've always wanted to win a batting title because when I came into the league, people said in five years I would win a batting title. Well, this is 11 years now, so hopefully, the time is soon."
On Tuesday, hours before extending his current 14-game hitting streak to 13, Damon talks about his shoulder. The one that's caused him so much trouble. The one that's messed with his swing and taken him out of games. The one that could have been his biggest threat to that batting title. He looks down at it and explains the pain it caused him.
Wait, Johnny -- wrong shoulder.
''Here I am looking at my left shoulder, and it was actually my right shoulder, so that's a good sign," Damon said before Tuesday's 8-7 win over Texas. ''The body feels surprisingly good right now. It's a relief. Hopefully, I can just try to stay healthy for the rest of the season, and keep swinging the hot bat."
Hot bat, even with a cold shoulder.
At times, Damon said, it seemed an endless cycle. When his arm would start to feel better, a diving catch would quickly erase all progress. About halfway through his 29-game streak, the exercises prescribed by trainers (weightlifting focused on strengthening his rotator cuff) prevailed, but Damon's mechanics were suffering. He was pulling out of the batter's box, and his hits were weak. Singles were coming, but extra bases and line drives were not.
Ultimately, Damon said, hurting his shoulder improved his swing by forcing him to reevaluate his approach at the plate, leaving him with a tighter, more compact swing.
So with a strong shoulder and two months to go, Damon says he's ready.
''I feel healthy. I feel like this is my time of year to shine," he said. ''I think because I'm in better shape than a lot of the guys out there that helps me out. Hopefully, I can continue to feel well, and if there is a time when I start struggling, I know I can go talk to Terry Francona and he can get me a day off."
Still, Damon's not likely to miss many games. First, he says that's not the kind of ballplayer he is -- he's sat out just seven games this year, two after hurting his shoulder against the Angels, and he won't take a day off against lefthanders or teams' best starters.
Second, he knows missing games means missing at-bats and possibly losing ground in the batting race. With Young, who finished ninth last year in average, lingering at No. 2, Damon values every plate appearance he can get.
During his 11 seasons, Damon's averages before and after the All-Star break are an impressively consistent .291. Last season, however, his bat cooled considerably down the stretch, his .332 combined June and July average dropping to .288 for August (.292) and September (.284). In his career, his best month has been July, when he's averaged .308, but August comes next at .291. September drops to .282.
Young, on the other hand, has sizzled the last two Septembers, hitting .343 in 2003 and .336 in 2004.
Damon credits his gritty approach in the batter's box to a tough 2001 season with the Oakland Athletics, when he hit a career-low .256.
''[That year] the umpires dictated my at-bats so much that they were calling everything on me. It was one of those years where tough pitches on you would get called. Ever since then, I'm like 'You know what? I'm going to go up and swing the bat and not let them dictate how I do at the plate.' So I'm swinging at those close pitches," he said.
Damon said his success at the plate in 2005 is largely the result of two things -- luck and weight. This year, he's gotten more bloopers to fall for hits and is 5 pounds lighter, making his base running more effective.
Another factor that could help Damon is the Sox' remaining schedule. With 49 games left, the Sox play Tampa Bay seven more times. In 12 games against the Devil Rays this year, Damon is hitting .365. He also has six more chances to hold up his .436 average against Baltimore, and seven more against Toronto, a team Damon's hitting .302 against in 10 contests.
Still, with the batting race on his mind, Damon said it's not his focus. Teammate John Olerud, who won a batting title with the Blue Jays in 1993, said, for him, that was the best approach as well.
''You don't want to focus on that sort of thing," Olerud said. ''If you're on a team that's completely out of it, then maybe you're thinking more about getting your hits. You want to be aggressive up there, and so I think being on a team that's in a pennant race is definitely a good thing because you concentrate on having good at-bats, and it keeps you from focusing too much on your average or where you are in the batting race standings. But you still got to go out, and you got to swing the bat well. You have two full months [left], and you got to keep swinging the bat well. If you're not . . . come late September, you're not going to be in the race."