ALLENTOWN — Preparing for his first minor-league game in almost two years, Aaron Altherr looked a bit confused looking around his locker in the Lehigh Valley IronPigs clubhouse on Tuesday. His nameplate was on top, his jersey was hanging on the rack, but something was missing.
Maybe it was that familiar Phillies logo?
"Obviously I'd rather be up there for sure, no doubt," said Altherr, just two days removed from his first demotion to triple A. The right fielder played two games here while rehabbing in 2016, but otherwise hadn't suited up for the IronPigs since August 2015, shortly before his first major-league stint.
"But I think it'll be good to feel normal again. Being able to see four or five at-bats a game definitely will help me get back into the swing of things, get the timing back and get the confidence back."
Pinch hitting for the Phillies after losing his starting spot to Nick Williams hadn't worked out well for Altherr, who went a miserable 7 for 59 since June 7. His batting average declined every month — and its starting point of .210 in April was hardly high to begin with. He has hit just one home run since May 22.
The 27-year-old was making an impact in pressure situations — his .316 batting average with runners in scoring position this season was well above the team average — but his overall .171/.290/.305 stat line represented a precipitous decline from his .272/.340/.516 breakout campaign of a year ago.
Finally, after Altherr went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts in Sunday's doubleheader against San Diego, Gabe Kapler decided Altherr needed a major shakeup.
"It was a lot tougher having to come in and get a pinch hit here and there," Altherr said. "It's definitely a different mindset. … You have to go out there and be ready from the first pitch on, because you might not see another good one to hit."
IronPigs hitting coach Sal Rende said he was in touch with the Phillies about their concerns with Altherr's plate performance. The former ninth-round pick has struggled with his leg kick — Kapler said in May he thought Altherr's timing was off, and Rende added Tuesday that he remembered working with Altherr in spring training last year on minimizing excessive movement — but Altherr's recent slump seems unrelated.
"We're basically just trying to get him to be on time and hit the fastball," Rende said. "The bottom line is, he was not hitting the fastballs that he normally does."
Altherr just chuckled when asked what was causing his struggles. "There have been a lot of things," he added sheepishly.
The weather didn't make Altherr's Lehigh Valley season debut come easily Tuesday, as a nearly two-hour rain delay meant Altherr's first plate appearance didn't happen until 9:12 p.m. He struck out. It was rather symbolic of his season, one in which absolutely nothing has come easily despite the lingering feeling that it should be going much better.
But perhaps how Altherr finished — with his first triple-A hit since July 27, 2016, a game-tying double in the eighth in a come-from-behind win over Gwinnett — will prove to be symbolic as well. Altherr certainly won't complain if it does.
"Making solid contact consistently, that is what's going to help me get back to where I know I can be," he said.