NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Former first-round draft choice and top Florida Marlins prospect Matt Dominguez admits that all the talk in March about how close he was to breaking into the big leagues might have gotten to him.
"Maybe I put a little pressure on myself," Dominguez said after a recent game with the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs. "I was trying not to, but maybe I started pressing a little, maybe swinging at bad pitches and kind of getting in my own head a little bit."
A hitting slump with the big club in spring training led to his demotion back to the minors, where, to make matters worse, he was struck by a pitch that fractured his left elbow in an exhibition game in late March.
The injury sidelined the 21-year-old third baseman for about six weeks. But now he's healthy again, hitting a little better and steadily working his way closer to a major league debut he's dreamed of since he was the 12th overall pick 2007.
He's starting for New Orleans, just one phone call away. The only question is when that call might come.
Dominguez's fielding is already considered by many in the Marlins organization to be better than that of most big league third basemen. So the sooner he improves at hitting breaking balls, the sooner the Marlins could be inclined to take another look at bringing him up.
"His defense is plus-major league defense for a third baseman and that's his thing," said Zephyrs manager Greg Norton, a former major leaguer who played first base and outfield. "Now he needs to get used to upper-level pitching and get out of here."
After a recent 0-for-3 outing on a hot afternoon in New Orleans, when the rest of his teammates rushed to cool off in the clubhouse, Dominguez went straight to the batting cage, where he worked on his swing, alone, for about 20 minutes.
Within the next few games, Dominguez's home run total with the Zephyrs shot up from one to four.
In his first 19 games at Triple-A, where he sometimes faces former major league hurlers a decade older than him, he's batting .262 with 17 RBI. He has also struck out 14 times.
"A lot of these pitchers in Triple-A are older and mix and match pitches in more locations, and it's different than Double-A, where they kind of rear back and throw it a little bit more often," Norton said. "It's going to be an adjustment for younger guys."
Dominguez, a native of Chatsworth, Calif., started his pro career in rookie and short-season leagues in 2007 and spent 2008 in Class A, where he hit .296. He was promoted from Class-A Florida State League to Double-A Jacksonville in late 2009, then spent all of 2010 with Jacksonville, hitting .252 with 14 home runs and 81 RBI in 138 games.
Although he is in his fifth season of pro baseball, Dominguez won't turn 22 until late August and said he is prepared to remain patient. He may have to be.
Veteran third baseman Greg Dobbs is hitting .338 for the Marlins, who are off to a solid start and could contend for the postseason.
"With the situation that it is in the big leagues, with Dobbs doing so well, with (backup third baseman Wes) Helms being a veteran guy and them playing so well, just from past experience, you really don't want to break up the chemistry in a big league locker room," Norton said. "With that being said, if Matty went out and hit .320 and was crushing the ball, I think that they would look at that."
In any event, the organization still considers Dominguez to be on schedule.
"We knew we were pushing the situation," Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez said of the decision to let Dominguez compete for a big league job in early March. "We decided not to force it. It's a matter of time. Mentally, he handled it fine. But we're not going to put him in a situation where he'll fail. If we have to wait, we will wait."
Dominguez said he'll take whatever happens in stride and try to make the best of it.
"I'm not frustrated about not being in the big leagues," Dominguez said. "Being 21 in Triple-A is an accomplishment, I think. So I just take it a day at a time, and you can't worry about that every day, coming in here and wondering, 'When are they going to call me up?' You're just going to drive yourself nuts, so you just go out and play hard every game and do your work and hopefully it'll take care of itself."
AP Sports Writer Steven Wine in Miami contributed to this report.