Baseball is sometimes criticized for being too slow, at times too methodical and, in recent years, features too many pitching changes. The home run, meanwhile, is the antithesis. It’s a crowd-pleaser, a get-out-of-your-seat energizer. One swing creates one magic moment.
If you’re a University of San Diego baseball fan, chances are good that the player delivering this instant excitement at the new Fowler Park in 2013 is junior third baseman Kris Bryant.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound athlete has already hit 12 home runs in his first 23 games this season. He tallied twice in a win over nationally ranked Cal State Fullerton and then crushed three, including the game-winner in the bottom of the ninth inning, against BYU. He added a second walk-off homer in a 14th-inning victory to complete USD’s WCC-opening series sweep of the Cougars.
Bryant is certainly doing his part for the Toreros (15-8, 4-2 WCC). His home run total is only two shy of his 2012 output. He needs only seven more to pass Dave Rolls’ 1988 single-season mark of 18. Bryant, who hit nine as a freshman, is tied for fourth on the career list with 35. Sean Baron (1985-88) is the career leader with 43 and that’s in jeopardy.
“It’s something to see, that’s for sure, and I get a front-row view for what he’s doing this year, which is pretty special,” said Dillon Haupt, who hits fourth in the batting order behind Bryant. “The one he hit against St. Louis, I swear it went over the [left-field] light tower, that thing looked like it went 500 feet, and I’m standing there going ‘oh my gosh.’ Then there’s the (14th-inning) walk-off one against BYU. Off the bat it didn’t look like it was gone, but because it’s him, it had a chance. You just see it carry and once it leaves, wow. It’s crazy.”
Bryant is certainly one of the top Division I college baseball position players in the nation. He’s picking up weekly honors regularly, national media attention — Sports Illustrated mentioned him in its March 18 issue — and he’s on pace to be a top 10 overall pick in June’s Major League Baseball amateur draft. It’s quite possible that he could supplant left-handed pitcher Brian Matusz, taken fourth overall by Baltimore in 2008, as USD’s highest-ever draftee.
Hyperbole? Maybe, but Bryant is doing his best to avoid outside distractions and keep everything in perspective.
“Baseball, to me, is about trying to make it as fun as possible,” he said. “I know it’s so hard to make it solely about that because these days it’s all about numbers and whether you’re producing or not. But I just try to play like I’m eight years old again. If I’m doing that, I know I’m having fun.”
Don’t expect to catch him discussing his latest game-winning home run in social media circles, either. “I don’t read anything about me on the Internet,” the 21-year-old Las Vegas native said. He doesn’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter handle. “I do have an Instagram for pictures.”
While it’s a good chance that the 2014 USD team photo won’t include Bryant, the business finance major and 2012 All-WCC Academic Team selection does plan to complete his college degree. But even now, he’s not thinking too far ahead.
“I try to just live in the moment,” he said. “Right now, I’m getting ready for the next game.”
That’s fine with Toreros Head Coach Rich Hill, who speaks glowingly of Bryant’s sacrifice, dedication and commitment to be the best all-around player he can be.
“The best thing about him might be his character. There’s stories of him basically being in a library and breaking it down when other guys might be out and about being regular college students on breaks in the fall or Christmas or whatever. He’s very dedicated, very focused and that character shines through.”
Few at USD are as close to Bryant as Jay Johnson, the Toreros’ assistant head coach. Johnson (pictured at right, congratulating Bryant on a home run) began following Bryant’s progress during his sophomore year at Bonanza High School. Bryant, who hit 67 high school home runs, including 22 his senior year, was convinced that USD was the right fit for baseball and academics. He chose USD over the Toronto Blue Jays, who drafted him in the 18th round in 2010.
“The physical tools were always easy to see. He’s got tremendous size, bat speed and athleticism, but something that really stood out was his ability to see the ball really well. Nobody talks about that,” Johnson said. “We were having a conversation right after he committed to us, talking about a couple of at-bats in a game I saw. He talked about how he could pick up the breaking balls in the pitcher’s hand and see the spin. I thought, ‘Wow, with that gift, along with all of the physical things you already see, this kid has a chance to really be something special as a hitter.’”
Bryant’s talent has developed accordingly. “The things that really separate him, outside of the physical tools, are his work ethic, which is spectacular, and his intelligence,” Johnson said. “He’s a great student here and he’s one of those rare guys who you can give him an adjustment or concept between at-bats and he’ll apply it immediately.”
The home runs should continue for Bryant, who has a .938 slugging percentage. He’s been walked 29 times along with six intentional passes, but that’s not exactly a great game plan against him. He’s scored a team-high 35 runs. Haupt, a senior catcher, has been solid protection for Bryant in the lineup. Haupt leads USD with 14 doubles and his .371 batting average and 24 RBI are second only to Bryant (.383, 27).
“A lot of people like to say that home runs are mistake pitches, but I believe home runs are the result of good swings,” Johnson said. “There aren’t a lot of players who have Kris’ bat speed and power. If you get him to stay on the ball long enough, the bat speed he creates will do a lot of damage to the ball.”
Bryant’s at-bats offer the kind of excitement that all Torero baseball fans hope to capture as long as they can this season.
— Ryan T. Blystone