Even through his worsening struggle to prove to the Padres he belongs in the major leagues, outfielder Shawn Abner has kept his lively sense of humor. These days, though, his wit leans more toward the gallows.
Asked what went through his mind when he looked at the scoreboard before his final at-bat Thursday, only to see that his average had sunk to a season-low .125, Abner could only smile.
"I looked up and thought they had the pitcher's (average) up there," Abner said. "I thought they got it out of order."
If so, the pitchers might have been insulted. They are hitting a combined .132, which was better than Abner was doing until he dropped in a seventh-inning single during a 7-1 loss to St. Louis at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
The hit was his first since a single June 27 against the Dodgers and raised his average to .140. It broke a zero-for-12 streak in which Abner had gone 18 games without a hit.
"I'm not down," he said. "My average is down, but I'm not."
Staying upbeat has not been easy for Abner, who is seeing his second major league chance in as many seasons slip away.
He opened last season on the Padre roster but was sent to triple-A Las Vegas after batting .181 in 37 games. He was not recalled in September and was cut this year with almost two weeks left in spring training.
But Abner received another chance when he was recalled June 14 after Tim Flannery went on the disabled list with a torn arm muscle. Padre Manager Jack McKeon promised to give Abner a fair shot and responded by starting him 11 games in a row.
Abner did show some signs of improvement. His three-run homer off Orel Hershiser June 19 sparked a 5-1 victory over the Dodgers. But it was a rare highlight. Abner was returned to the bench after he hit .163 in his first 11 starts.
Since then, he has started only against left-handed pitchers. He said that has led him to try to make too much of opportunities.
"Nobody likes to sit on the bench and play once every four or five days," Abner said. "So you go up there and try to get a six-run home run. And you can't do it."
Consider what happened to him with two outs in the second inning, the bases loaded and the Padres trailing, 2-1.
Cardinal starter Joe Magrane had walked the previous two batters, including pitcher Walt Terrell. But Abner went up swinging away and struck out on three pitches. None, Abner said, were in the strike zone.
"It was a messed-up piece of hitting," Abner said. "I swung at pitches I really shouldn't have been swinging at. I should have been up there 3-0. I just have to concentrate."
Abner said he has done everything he considers reasonable to break out of his slump. He has taken extra batting practice, worked in the weight room, watched attentively from the bench and talked with teammates and coaches about his hitting. Nothing has worked.
"I'm seeing pitches to hit," Abner said. "I'm hitting too many fly balls. I'm not going to make excuses. Things aren't going well right now."
His recent troubles are only part of what has been a difficult transition. He came to the Padres from New York in the December 1986 deal that sent Kevin McReynolds to the Mets. The Padres still are waiting for Abner, 23 and the first pick in the 1984 amateur free agent draft, to reach his potential. The progress has been slow.
In 75 games over parts of three major league seasons, Abner is batting .193, and his strikeouts (37) outnumber his hits by one.
"I have to go up there and instead of hitting home runs just hit the ball in play, get the bat on the ball," Abner said. "Sometimes I put pressure on myself to do something. I tell myself 'Right here, I've got to pick it up a little bit.' But then I try to do things at the plate I'm not capable of doing."
Despite his struggles, Abner said he does dwell on his future with the Padres or the possibility that he could at some point be returned to Las Vegas.
"That is out of my hands," he said. "I have just got to play hard and, when I play, do the best I can to help the team. I can't sit every day and worry whether I'm going to be here or not."
Instead, Abner said, he has tried to see a way where he can contribute to the team, even in his limited role.
"You want to help the team somehow," Abner said. "You want to help our team win, even if it is once every four or five days. I don't want to be just dead weight."