Manchester University head baseball coach Rick Espeset may already have a leadership role or two filled for 2017. And its only mid-July.
Rising junior hurlers Brandon Eck (Fort Wayne, Ind.) and Taylor Kopplin (Westport, Ind.) have been showing off their wares and gaining more information about their favorite pastime this summer. Kopplin had been a middle relief to closer pitcher for the Champion City Kings of the Prospect League until his season was stopped due to an injury, while Eck has transformed from a relief pitcher to a starter for the Ohio-based club.
“(This level) definitely makes you work on the mental aspect,” Eck said. “I’ve been finding out you can’t leave pitches over the middle against top flight hitters, as they’ll capitalize. Sometimes, playing in college, you can get away with that because players are struggling and what not. It’s not like that here, though. Every hitter is good, and if you leave it in the wrong spot, they’ll hit it hard.”
Eck’s first start in Blue, Red and White saw him go five innings with just two runs scored. Several balls were hit on the nose, and he had to get through 81 pitches in the span.
“Our coaches tell us about forcing hitters to have uncomfortable at-bats,” he said. “As an example, instead of going away, away, away, you might come inside with a pitch or throw high … get them thinking and disrupt their thought process. If you can get them off the plate and change their eye focus, it makes for (that uncomfortable situation).
“It’s definitely got a minor league feel to it,” he added of the Prospect League experience. “You live with host families, have to work out either with the team or on your own every day to keep in shape and the road trips are for days at a time. It challenges you, but I’ve also seen it bring this team together. We had a rough first half, but, since then, we’ve really bonded and played much better in the second half.”
Kopplin agreed with his collegiate and summer league teammate. “We had a very experienced coaching staff so it was nice to sit and pick the brains of guys that had played professionally,” he noted. “I asked a lot of questions … learning about preparing my body for games, game situations, and a lot of other things that they had picked up over their years of experience. After I was shut down due to injury, I stayed in the dugout during games, asking our coach Rick White what pitches he would throw in situations to certain hitters. He would answer with usually two different pitches and locations and explain why every time so that was great. We would also ask him how he got hitters like (former New York Yankees shortstop Derek) Jeter and (Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Ken) Griffey Jr. out when he played in the majors.”
The aforementioned strong perspective of being leaders on and off the field was an added bonus for the duo. “I think we’ll be able to go back, in the fall, and be able to share our experiences and the things we learned with the other guys on the staff,” Eck noted. “The returning upperclassmen in the program will be expected to shoulder a lot more with a young staff and a new catcher. I see Taylor and I being able to help with this process due to what we’ve been doing.
“It was great playing together,” he added. “We’re both competitors, wanting to win and continue to improve. I hated to see him have to leave, but he knows how important the collegiate season is. We’ve talked a lot about how much we’ve enjoyed this opportunity and what it’s given us.”
“I feel that playing with the Kings this past summer has prepared me to take the next step with the Spartans,” Kopplin said. “The situations we faced and opportunities we had will put us in a great position to help lead the program back towards the goal of a conference championship. All summer Brandon and I talked and thought about what it was going to take (to win the HCAC).”
While the road to the majors would be tough at any stage, both of them indicated they would look into going back to the Prospect League if the chance was afforded.
“I’ve enjoyed everything (about it),” Eck said. “There are so many opportunities out there with this, as we have a few guys on the team that are hoping to chances in independent league baseball after this. For me, though, the chance to get know the 26 guys on this team and becoming the friends we are is a great takeaway in itself.”
“I hope I can get a similar opportunity next summer,” Kopplin admitted. “Now that my summer is over, I’ve got my sights set on improving in the fall and the offseason and coming back better than last year in the spring (at Manchester University).”
Another opportunity the two Black and Gold athletes can take back for the 2017 season and beyond … in turn building more leaders for Manchester University baseball.