PEORIA - Nick Hundley carries an air of confidence unexpected for a player who was previously demoted.
The Padres catcher and former Arizona Wildcats star has regained his swagger after a discouraging season in which he lost a starting job and his spot on a major-league roster.
Hundley calls it the worst year of his athletic career, when an ill-timed knee injury hindered him physically, mentally and statistically.
Hundley hit a career-low .196 with three home runs and 22 RBIs in 225 at bats, with a whopping 50 strikeouts in 55 games. Hundley was replaced by rookie phenom Yasmani Grandal and eventually relegated to the Triple-A Tucson Padres.
He was ruled out for the season just 13 minor-league games later for surgery on a knee originally damaged in April, one he refuses to use as an excuse. It was a dark period unlike any other, which shook his confidence to the core.
"Injuries can play tricks on the mind," Padres hitting coach Phil Plantier said. "That's especially true with professional athletes, who feel indestructible and believe they can fight their way through anything. When things don't work out as they normally do and the body won't respond, it wears on you mentally. I think that happened with Nick, and he exhausted himself."
Hundley shows no sign of wear and tear now. He reported to spring training with a reconstructed swing, a clean bill of health and a shot at redemption.
Grandal's 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs provides an opening.
Hundley will be the Padres' starting catcher early this season, with a chance to lock up that job for the rest of the year.
"It feels good to be myself again, but I still have a long way to go to be the player I know I can be," Hundley said. "Nothing in this game happens overnight, and you always feel like a work in progress.
"Right now, I feel that progress has been accelerated by leaps and bounds. My confidence is high and I'm ready to go play. It's been a while, and I can't wait to get started."
Hundley hasn't played since August, and hasn't generated the steady production that helped him rise through the minor leagues and earn a three-year, $9 million contract that expires after 2014.
Hundley developed some bad habits trying to compensate for a weakened left knee that couldn't generate the power necessary to drive the ball. It changed his body angle and posture, and the plane of his swing. After a while, everything felt unnatural.
"I didn't do a good job of making adjustments last year," he said. "Every one I made went the wrong way, and it started to affect my mindset."
The Padres would take a repeat of 2011, when Hundley hit a career-best .288. The 29-year-old believes his best is yet to come.
"There's a lot of fight, a lot of pride in Nick," Padres manager Bud Black said. "He wants to come out this season and make amends. He wants to prove that he's a top-flight major-league player. I think he's got that in him. He's had a good offseason. His knee feels great. He's in a good frame of mind mentally."