Friday, April 8, 2011

Former NAV Chad Zurcher Leads Nation in Hitting

FORMER NAV CHAD ZURCHER LEADS NATION IN HITTING: Memphis: About seven weeks into the college baseball season, Chad Zurcher was aware of his torrid start. His line drives to the outfield were finding the gaps. His sharply hit ground balls were eluding the gloves of diving infielders. His flares were dropping in front of fast-charging outfielders. What Zurcher didn't realize as the base hits accumulated like a teenager's cellphone minutes was how torrid his start was. When Zurcher steps to the plate tonight at AutoZone Park against Ole Miss, it will be as the nation's leading hitter. A junior shortstop for the University of Memphis baseball team, Zurcher is hitting .505, or 19 percentage points better than Tanner Waite of New Mexico State. He leads Conference USA by more than 100 percentage points, an amazing separation between the top two hitters nearly two months into the season. ''I know it's a cliché,'' said hitting coach Jerry Zulli, ''but the kid shows up every day. And he goes hard. But his mindset is simple. He never tries to do too much.'' Zulli said Zurcher is being rewarded for his strong work ethic, but, as with any streak, there is also some good fortune involved. ''He's getting a lot of breaks,'' Zulli said. ''Things are going his way. But what he's doing is nothing that shocks us.'' Zurcher, a native of Knoxville, said he was on the Baseball America website last week when a question posed during a live online chat asked which player led the NCAA in hitting. Zurcher said he was surprised when the response was a U of M shortstop. ''I knew I had a good average, but I didn't know where it was actually,'' Zurcher said. ''When I found out, I just went, 'Wow.' There are so many other (good players) who play college baseball. It's been fun.'' Zurcher has had two or more hits in 17 of the UofM's 27 games. He went 3-for-4 in Sunday's 13-5 win over Alcorn State and is 47-for-93 for the season, with 10 doubles and two triples. He has struck out only three times in 122 plate appearances and ranks among the top 10 toughest to fan in college baseball. ''His approach is to stay to the middle of the field,'' Zulli said. ''That's where 90 percent of your hits come from.'' Tigers coach Daron Schoenrock said Zurcher has benefited from hitting second in the lineup behind Drew Martinez, who flirted with a .400 average a year ago and was a 23rd-round pick of the New York Mets last summer. ''I can't tell you honestly that when we signed him we expected him to hit (.500),'' Schoenrock said. ''But we knew we were getting a solid kid.'' Zurcher has gradually boosted his average through the years, from .267 as a 135-pound freshman to his .500-plus average as a 170-pound fourth-year junior. Zurcher's second season was curtailed by a shoulder injury and he was granted a medical redshirt. That shortened sophomore season saw Zurcher hit .297 in 16 games and was followed by a .400 season last spring and a spot on all-C-USA's second team. Zurcher became only the sixth player in school history to bat at least .400 for a season. ''I had a good year last year and remember thinking, 'I hit .400, that's great, if I could do that again it would be awesome.' Now I'm sitting above it," Zurcher said. The feat comes in a year in which the power of the sport's aluminum bats has been reduced. A new NCAA bat-performance standard was enacted this spring with the goal to have nonwood bats perform similarly to wood bats. The college baseball rules committee sought to reduce the "trampoline effect" of the bats. ''I didn't think it would take much away from me because I'm not a home run hitter,'' Zurcher said. Schoenrock said Zurcher is helped by the fact ''he doesn't hit a lot of fly balls.'' ''Guys who hit fly balls with these new bats?'' Schoenrock said. ''That's death.'' Zurcher hit six home runs last season and has yet to hit one this year. So while the new bats may limit his power, he doesn't expect them to affect his ability to hit for an average. ''There are times you hit a ball good and realize the (result) would have been different last year,'' Zurcher said. ''But the feel of it? There's no difference. You just go up and it's like swinging any other bat. You're just trying to square every pitch up.'' Nation's top hitters 1. Chad Zurcher, Memphis, .505 2. Tanner Waite, New Mexico State, .486 3. C.J. Cron, Utah, .476 4. Matt Gedman, UMass, .466 5. Tyler Jones, Long Island, .444

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