Fox Leads Trail of Hot Hitters for Tennessee

PEARL, Miss. – Catcher turned outfielder Jake Fox has a fever – a hitting fever.

The 24-year-old Fox picked up three hits (all doubles) in Double-A Tennessee's 3-2 loss at Mississippi on Thursday.

Friday, he reached base on an infield single in the first inning to extend his hitting streak to six consecutive games.

Having entered play this weekend batting a season-high .364, Fox says he has been more aggressive of late.

"It's amazing the number of pitches that you watch go by and later say you could have gotten the barrel on," said Fox. "Lately, I've said to heck with it and if I can reach it, I'm going to hit it."

Fox's plate discipline isn't perfect, as evidenced by his 28 strikeouts and two walks in 36 games. But he has a .380 on-base percentage this season.

Defensively, once a mainstay behind the plate, Fox has been exposing the versatile side of his game by manning the outfield and first base.

Fox showed off his glove work in the first inning on Thursday by making a head-first dive in left field that robbed Matt Esquivel of extra bases.

In the second inning Friday, he knocked down a screaming liner from Esquivel at first base that got Tennessee out of a bases-loaded jam.

Fox has been adjusting to life outside of catching since late last season at Double-A, when he first began the outfield experiment.

"It keeps me in the lineup every day," Fox said of the switch. "I do miss catching every night, but playing the outfield and first base keeps my body fresh. If I'm going to come out every day, I might as well be in the lineup.

"Originally, they put me out there to see if I could play some other positions. I think they've realized that I can," added Fox.

Hitting-wise, Fox isn't the only one swinging a hot bat in Tennessee's lineup. Entering play Friday, the Southern League's top three hitters for average were all Smokies players: Jorge Cortes (.383), Fox, and Josh Kroeger (.364).

Unlike Fox, a Cubs third-round pick in the 2003 draft, Kroeger and Cortes are in their first years with Chicago's farm system.

The 24-year-old Kroeger signed as a minor league free agent last December after spending 2006 with Triple-A Scranton of the Philadelphia Phillies' farm system. He made his major league debut with Arizona in 2004.

This season, Kroeger has recorded a hit in all but five of his starts.

"He's above average in the outfield, runs well and has a good arm," Tennessee manager Pat Listach said of Kroeger. "He's a left-handed hitter, so you can plug him into that lineup any night and he'll do some damage. He doesn't say much in the clubhouse, but from 7 to 10, he's all business."

Cortes meanwhile spent many years in the Pittsburgh Pirates' system having signed as a non-drafted free agent from Barranquilla, Colombia, in 1997.

He entered the week batting over .400 in 27 games with the Smokies.

"Cortes' mechanics are so different than the normal conventional swing," said Cubs Minor League Hitting Coordinator Dave Keller. "The only thing I talk to him about is making sure he understands what pitches are his to hit and zone in on what he needs to do to be successful."

Between Cortes and Kroeger, the two have combined for nine seasons of Double-A or Triple-A baseball.

"The advantage that those two guys have is the experience at a Double-A or Triple-A level," Keller said of Kroeger and Cortes. "They're leaders just because of that experience."

Tennessee entered play Friday at 20-19 overall with a half-game lead atop the Southern League's Northern Division.

Listach, a former American League Rookie of the Year with Milwaukee, talked about the line between the overall development of future major league players versus win-loss records in the minor leagues.

"You develop during the first seven innings of the game. In the eighth and ninth innings, that's when you try to win the game," Listach said. "But my philosophy is: the more games you win, the more you develop. You'll learn how to win and you'll get a winning attitude. That's what it's all about."

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