Carrying a big stick
Drew Bridges having another banner summer with his bat
For most batters it’s called the strike zone. For Drew Bridges, it’s more like the danger zone, where wayward fastballs and hanging curves are welcome — if only for the smallest fraction of a second.
Strikes thrown to Bridges get greeted with an aluminum or wood bat swung with bad intentions, and their exit from the danger zone tends to be on the straightest line to the outfield wall, with a vapor trail in the baseball’s wake.
In fairness to pitchers, perhaps Bridges should warn them about the danger zone: Enter at your own risk.
But in baseball circles around this region, Bridges doesn’t need an introduction. Nor is anyone in the Colorado American Legion League oblivious to what he can do with a bat.
He’s a well-known commodity, which explains why during the spring high school season, pitchers weren’t afraid to challenge him, but they knew to be careful against the Fruita Monument High School shortstop. And still he had another All-Southwestern League season as a senior, hitting .394 with 10 of his 26 hits going for extra bases, including four home runs.
But during the summers, playing for the Gene Taylor’s American Legion team, he gets an opportunity otherwise absent on the Western Slope. He faces some pitchers who are not familiar with him, and that means seeing more pitches where pitchers shouldn’t throw them.
“I’m able to go after that first pitch, second pitch,” Bridges said. “Even if I get a hit the first time, they still want to get that first-pitch strike. ... And we have good hitters one through nine, so they have to pitch to all of us.”
It’s reflected in Bridges’ hitting statistics for Gene Taylor’s. After hitting .479 a year ago with 30 of his 57 hits going for extra bases, including 17 home runs, Bridges is batting .444 to date this summer with 23 of his 36 hits going for extra bases. His home run rate is down, but he has collected doubles, 16 of them, like a kid grabbing a handful of gravel.
“It seems like he picked up where he left off last season,” said Gene Taylor’s head coach Dave Jahnke, who termed Bridges’ 2011 stats, “stupid numbers, really.”
Bridges said he notices a difference from spring to summer. It’s not that he went unchallenged in the spring, but he said, “They’re not looking to strike me out as much. I think they locate (pitches) on the outside more. They feel it would be better to give up a walk than a big hit.”
That’s not vanity speaking.
One of his teammates on Gene Taylor’s, an all-star collection of Grand Valley players, is Josh Moore, who played for Grand Junction High School and faced Bridges.
“He definitely forced a lot of walks because you didn’t want to give up the big hit, and you always pitched around him,” Moore said. “I think I’ve faced him three times and given up a single and two walks. A walk’s better than a double.”
Moore also recalls Bridges fouling pitches off, taking him to eight- and nine-pitch at-bats.
“With Drew,” Moore added, “he’s a tough guy to figure out what you’re going to throw to him. He’d spoil a lot of pitches and get it to his count. He’d always get his count, his pitch. It’s hard to keep him off-balance. It’s hard to keep him guessing.”
That’s one of the things Jahnke speaks about in terms of Bridges’ development, the progress he made from a year ago in pitch recognition, which has led to a pronounced reduction in his strikeout rate.
Seeing how much Bridges has grown in the two years he has coached him, Jahnke predicts bigger things are coming for the slugger at the next level: NCAA Division I baseball at the University of New Mexico.
“I think he will have a very productive college career,” Jahnke said. “If he keeps improving, playing baseball year-round … I can see him improving tenfold from what we’ve already seen in two years with us.
“And if he keeps doing that, he’ll reach his ultimate goal.”
The ultimate goal? Playing Major League Baseball.
Bridges playing in the big leagues one day won’t surprise Duane Banks, legendary former head coach at the University of Iowa, where 28 productive years led to the university’s baseball stadium being named for him. Banks, who retired to Grand Junction, has worked with Bridges on the side for the past two years.
“He is special,” Banks said. “He has talent he doesn’t even know about.
“He’s going to be something. I think his best days are ahead of him. In three years it’s going to be interesting to see where he goes in the draft.”
If that sounds like Banks is assuming a lot, Banks tempers the assertion with the caveat Bridges needs to keep working hard. And he can’t imagine Bridges doing anything but that.
During Bridges’ offseasons from baseball and basketball, where the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder also was a star, Banks said he usually works with Bridges three days a week, sometimes four, adding Bridges “couldn’t get enough. Every day it’s something new. He wants to be good.
“Where he’s going (New Mexico), working every day, every day, he’s just gonna blossom.”
None of this praise of Bridges is new to New Mexico head coach Ray Birmingham, who in his five years at the university has turned the program around, putting it in the postseason the past three seasons after a 50-year absence. Birmingham’s squads also have consistently been among the top hitting teams in the nation for Division I, including No. 1 in 2009.
Birmingham said it was Banks, whom he calls one of the greatest coaches in college baseball history, who told him he needed to see Bridges. So, Birmingham came to Grand Junction, where he has had great luck with previous New Mexico players Dane Hamilton and Clinton Cox.
“We think he’s right,” Birmingham said of Banks’ assessment.
Jahnke said speculation is Bridges will play third base for the Lobos. Birmingham said that’s not decided.
What he knows for sure is: “He probably will be somewhere on the field because he can hit. His athleticism will tell us where to play him.”
In the meantime, Bridges has a Legion season to finish.
He’s currently in Las Vegas for a four-day tournament, where he will face plenty of pitchers who’ve never seen him. Thursday, the tourney’s first day, he hit a home run and two doubles as he went 3 for 5 in two games.
“It’s good to go in with nobody knowing me,” Bridges said.
How appropriate, then, he’s in Las Vegas, where gambling is king, and a few pitchers will gamble and try to blow strikes past him. But the better odds are Bridges will be the one hitting the jackpot.