Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Radford's Alex Gregory's batting prowess

Alex Gregory's secret to his batting prowess? It's all in the eyes.

RADFORD -- The secret to one of the nation's most consistent college hitters isn't what he does in the batting cage.

It's what he doesn't do.

He doesn't swing.

OK, so that's a bit of an exaggeration. Like all of his Radford University teammates, Alex Gregory gets his hacks in during batting practice.

But then he does something a little different, something that helps explain how a lightly recruited prospect out of Northern Virginia has become one of only two players in Division I baseball to hit better than .400 in both 2007 and '08. Something that has him well on his way to reaching that coveted level again this year.

It's quite simple, really. Gregory sets the pitching machine to throw sliders just off the outside corner of the plate.

And then he watches them go by, over and over again, without swinging the bat.

"My freshman year, I struggled seeing breaking pitches," the senior first baseman explained. "Couldn't hit them very well. That was an adjustment I obviously needed to make, hitting in the middle of the order.

"So I worked with that. You have major things that you work on, I think, and freshman year, that was it: Hitting the breaking pitch."

These days, he's hitting everything. Fastballs, curveballs, change-ups. Everything.

Gregory is batting .419, tops on the team and among the leaders in the Big South Conference. With a strong final month, Gregory could become the first three-time batting champion in the conference's history.

He's a well-built player -- 6-foot-2, 210 pounds -- but one of Gregory's greatest strengths this year has been plate discipline. He's walked 20 times against only 12 strikeouts, a stark improvement from his first two seasons with the Highlanders.

Credit his swingless routine, a drill he developed on his own.

"I think pitch recognition is one of the toughest things to do," Gregory said. "But you can pick it up early and say that slider's going to be out of the zone, just from repetition over and over and over."

Gregory has seen fewer pitches to hit as his profile has grown. He was named the Big South preseason player of the year, and rivals know only he and North Carolina's Dustin Ackey have gone over .400 in each of the past two years.

Ackey, a junior, is batting .387 so far this season -- so perhaps Gregory is on the verge of another solo achievement.

All this was made possible because of one of the lowest points in Gregory's career. Despite his strong statistical resume, he was bypassed in the MLB draft last June.

"Just kept watching and waiting for my name," Gregory said. "It never came. It was definitely disappointing. It was almost a feeling like, what else can I do?"

Second-year RU coach Joe Raccuia was similarly surprised. He knew some scouts liked Gregory more than others -- he's not a prototypical five-tool guy -- but Gregory showed he could hit for power last season when he belted 14 homers. That's typically the most important skill for a corner infielder or corner outfielder, where Gregory projects at the next level.

"Everything we thought professional baseball would want to see, he did," Raccuia said. "I'm a little bit stunned that he's back, but it's good for Radford baseball."

And in the end, it's been good for Gregory. After shaking off the disappointment, he went on to tie for the New England Collegiate Baseball League lead with eight homers last summer. He swatted 10 homers in the Clark Griffith League in 2007, displaying what Baseball America called "the best raw power" in that wooden-bat circuit.

And now he's thriving again at RU, where he hopes to challenge for a conference crown and strengthen his pro stock.

He's been part of a mini-revival in Radford, one of only a handful of schools that offered him a scholarship. Just like the perceived draft snub, he uses the low recruiting interest as motivation.

"I'm not going to play with a chip on my shoulder," Gregory said. "But I'm going to play to the best of my ability. And hopefully down the road, somebody will say, 'I wish we had that guy.' "

The Highlanders are glad they have that guy.

"He's a guy you can count on in any situation," teammate Nick Minter said. "And he works hard on it, too. Even though he's hitting well right now, he'll still go in the cage and work hard at what he's doing. That's why he's such a good hitter."

And such a good taker, too.

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