LUMBERTON — Baseball wunderkind Bryce Harper was benched earlier this season by Washington manager Matt Williams after failing to hustle down the line on a soft grounder back to the pitcher.
Jacob Saulnier, Lumberton’s lefty clean-up hitter with a similar stance, doesn’t have that problem.
You know what you’re getting when No. 11’s in the lineup.
“I’ve always hustled, it’s just what I do,” Saulnier said between sessions in the batting cage Monday afternoon. “My dad’s always told me that hustle makes it happen.”
Saulnier’s never loafed or dropped his head after a bad at-bat and runs harder than anyone on the team says his coach Paul Hodges. That’s part of the reason Daniel Oxendine has had success in the three hole, a slugger with a team-leading nine extra-base hits.
“We told Jacob and Justice (Sampson) before the season that Daniel was going to need some protection or he wouldn’t see any pitches to hit,” Hodges said. “Jacob can hit the ball to all fields and does a great job of hitting the ball the other way when we’ve needed him to do that (this season).”
Though his .281 average and team-leading 19 RBI has exceeded expectations in terms of offensive production, Saulnier’s strength is his importance to the Pirates outside the box score. He’s often the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave the field after games, choosing to run poles from the left field corner to right just to prove a focus on baseball.
“There’s no time for distractions when it’s baseball season,” Saulnier said. “I just lock in and worry about the grind.”
In an age where a player’s work ethic often comes into question even at the major league level, Saulnier’s drive and will to improve is unmatched says Hodges. He’ll play a factor in tonight’s opening round Southeastern Conference tournament game against Hoke.
“In 24 years of coaching, I’ve never had a kid improve as much as Jacob has over the last two years,” Hodges said. “His 40 (yard dash) has gone from a 6.1 to a 4.7 since he was a freshman. He gets the most out of his ability and his work ethic rubs off on his teammates. Coach Britt has a good old saying: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
Saulnier’s father, Steve, has worked with the junior first baseman almost daily with his swing and especially on weekends on an empty field when football duty hasn’t called as The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s assistant head coach.
Saulnier was recently hired as an assistant on Pete Shinnick’s staff at West Florida and will be moving his family to Pensacola, Fla., this summer. His son has the option to stay in Lumberton for his final season of prep baseball if he chooses before leaving for the Sunshine State.
“We’re hoping he stays,” Hodges says. “The decision’s up to him and I know it’s tough on a player to leave his senior year. Jacob makes us a better baseball team but even more than that, he’s a great kid.”
Reach Brad Crawford at 910-272-6111 or on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.