The Hart of the Lineup By Philip Sanzo

Garber Field is the home of the Massachusetts men’s and women’s lacrosse teams. On occasion though, it serves as a practice field, free of snow, for the Massachusetts baseball team. Last Friday was a perfect day for baseball on the field… if it was about 25 degrees warmer.

The cloudless sky allowed the sun to shine on the bright green turf without any sort of obstruction, making the 35 degree temperature a bit more bearable. The team stretched, played catch and broke off into groups based on position. In the far right corner of the field, with the most space, were the outfielders. Among them was Mike Hart.

While many on the team sported maroon UMass pullover sweatshirts and the occasional beanie, Hart stuck to just his maroon “UMass Baseball” T-shirt over another black three-quarter sleeve. He decided to go with the throwback UMass cap with an interlocking “UM” and Adidas training shoes that at one point were new and white.

Hart hits left-handed, yet throws with his right hand, and patrols his part of the outfield with unmatched intensity and passion. It can be an Atlantic 10 game at Earl Lorden Field or a mid-February practice at Garber, it doesn’t matter.

Hart needs—not just wants—to give it his all.

He needed to be the hardest worker in the room simply to earn a start. Now, following a breakout season, the pressure is on for Hart to maintain that dominance.

“I love it—no I love it,” he said. “The pressure is there for a reason. I work hard when people say I can’t do something. I use that as motivation.”

(Jess Picard/ Daily Collegian)

With the 2017 season a week away from commencing at Elon University, the Minutemen are unsure how the lineup is going to look. But UMass coach Mike Stone made one thing certain: Hart’s name will be penciled in as the number 3 hitter on the lineup card.

Hart’s 2016 stats fit the mold of a traditional three-hole hitter. In 43 games for the Minutemen last season, Hart hit a team leading .313, along with three home runs and 14 runs batted in.

His performance as part of the Seacoast Mavericks in the Futures League this past summer backed up the stats from the 2016 season. In 45 games with the Mavericks, Hart hit .364, belted 10 home runs and drove in 31 runs against college-level talent from all over the country.

There is no denying that Hart has been blowing up the stat sheets over the course of the last year, and Stone believes the 2017 campaign could be his best yet. What can get lost in all the hits and RBIs that Hart has accumulated in the past year though, is the work the once walk-on catcher has put into this game.

His one and only season of high school varsity baseball came when he was a senior in 2012. A .329 average helped earn him a spot on the All-Conference team and recognition as a league All-Star. Despite the accolades, Hart, a catcher at the time, left high school without being recruited.

After not playing baseball his entire freshman year and contemplating giving up the sport entirely, Hart walked on to the Massachusetts baseball team as a sophomore. That 2014 season, Hart appeared in only two games and had just two at-bats. He went 0-for-2 with a strike out.

“Every kid that we’ve always had, whoever has been the best of the best has had that extra work ethic that he has,” Stone said.

In that first season with UMass, Stone made it clear Hart would have to prove his worth in order play a significant role with the team.

“So at that point, I just kind of realized that if I want to be a [Division 1] athlete, I have to put in D-I work and from there on out I just put in extra, extra extra extra until I got to where I am now,” Hart said.

Though Hart started his collegiate career as a catcher, he transitioned to the outfield following a defensive display he put on during batting practice toward the end of his first season. His diving and sliding efforts in the outfield during batting practice caught the attention of his teammates and coaches, enough to at least get Hart to trade his catcher’s mitt in for an outfielder’s glove.

But for fellow senior and outfielder, Dylan Morris, it was a pinch-hit opportunity Hart had against Richmond May 3, 2015 that put his name on everyone’s radar.

“The next year, our sophomore year against Richmond, [he came in ] in a pinch-hit and he hit this home run to right-center and the ball is still going now,” Morris said. “When he hit that, I was like, ‘Wow. This kid’s legit and he’s going to be a stud for us.’”

The home run came in the ninth inning and would spark a five-run rally. The Minutemen ultimately lost the game to the Spiders, 10-7.

Stone now admits that when Hart joined the team, he was unsure what player he would become. However, Hart’s attitude and commitment to getting better stuck out. He doesn’t waste a swing, let alone a practice or work out. So while Stone couldn’t predict what Hart could become, he could tell he possessed an attribute that boded well for his future.

“Every kid that we’ve always had, whoever has been the best of the best has had that extra work ethic that he has,” Stone said.

(Jess Picard/Daily Collegian)

As a fifth-year student, Hart only needs a few credits to graduate, and elected to take them in the spring. This allows him to play one more season with the Minutemen. To do this, Hart had to take the fall semester off.

Staying in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Hart did not allow being away from Amherst to deter his preparation for the coming season. While working with a hitting coach, Hart worked out with UMass baseball alum, Kyle Adie. Adie graduated from UMass in 2015 and is currently playing in California in the Independent League.

NCAA rules prevented Hart from having much communication with UMass coaches including Stone, but, being a senior, Hart was pretty familiar with the offseason routine.

In addition to the typical baseball training, Hart made it a point to bulk up—putting on approximately 20 pounds over the offseason. His official weight is listed at 200, which is a little lower than it was at the beginning of the semester. Everyday practices have caused Hart to shed a few pounds over the course of the last few weeks.

“As a number 3 hitter, we’re always going for average, but we also need that power number, especially when we don’t score as many runs as we did last year,” Hart said. “A couple of extra doubles and a couple of extra base hits may help out.”

Losing catcher and captain John Jennings to graduation means losing nine home runs and 32 RBIs, the Minutemen’s primary source of production last season. This served as an incentive for Hart to put on some weight and hopefully improve his power numbers.

While Stone agrees the additional muscle will improve Hart’s power, he noted Hart is more of a line drive hitter and to ask someone to hit home runs at the collegiate level is unrealistic.

“He’s a run producer. I think he’s a clutch guy, an RBI guy, so we see him as somebody who is going to hit third in the lineup and hopefully drive in a lot of runs,” Stone said.

With Earl Lorden drenched in water, if not completely covered in snow, the Minutemen are forced to take swings within the batting cages inside Boyden Gymnasium. Even in the condensed space, Hart’s offseason work has shown.

“The balls he’s hitting in batting practice are just jumping off his bat a little bit more than last year,” Morris said.

While the increased power is noticeable, Stone says the increased quality of his reps is the biggest difference from last year.

Undoubtedly, many of Hart’s improvements can be credited to his time in the Futures League this past summer.

The Futures League consists of nine teams located throughout New England and gives college ball players a chance to play baseball against collegiate talent while maintaining a relaxed environment.

Hart’s numbers in his first season in the league speak for themselves. Moreover, what he learned about leadership and the mental aspect of the game were just as valuable.

As Yogi Berra famously put it, “Baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical.”

Hart is realizing that now more than ever.

“For me, I didn’t have the fall. I didn’t see live pitching so I’m kind of slow getting back into the timing and everything but I know once we get on that field, I’m more prepared mentally which is a huge part of the game,” Hart said. “I mean there is only so much you can do preparing physically. [The mental aspect] is a huge part and I’ve been putting that in my game this year.”

(Daniel Maldonado/ Daily Collegian)

Not only will Hart be asked to be the number 3 hitter in the Minutemen lineup, he and Morris were named co-captains for the 2017 season.

As Morris put it, the co-captain’s leadership styles follow a “good cop, bad cop” format. Morris will be the guy that will give you a pat on the back, while Hart is not afraid to get in your face if he feels you’re not putting in the work.

Being 22 years old and playing in the Futures League, Hart took on the role of a leader for the roster, which is predominantly composed of freshmen and sophomores. He learned how to lead his team by example rather than with words.

“I think that has helped me up here, being captain this year and just all the younger guys,” Hart said. “I don’t have to say much but I can show by example and show the hard work that I put in and hopefully they can see what I do and repeat it.”

Not being on campus during the fall meant Hart had to keep tabs on the team through the other veteran players. Once he came back for the spring semester, Hart took a two-week grace period to learn more about this year’s team.

He believes that while he and Morris are labeled “captains,” each player is responsible for being a leader. He believes that part of his responsibility is “to promote more leaders.”

(Jess Picard/ Daily Collegian)

Hart is not ready to give up on baseball. He almost did after high school, but stuck with it and is now slated to hit third this season for the Minutemen.

The confidence he built coming off of his performance in the Futures League has Stone feeling confident he’ll start off the 2017 season well. If he can build off of last season, Stone believes he can make it to the next level.

For Hart, it’s all about working as hard as he can to continue playing the game he loves.

“I’m trying to wear this jersey for as long as I can so if I don’t get picked up after this season, then I’m just going to keep working. If you don’t set a ceiling, then you’re not going to break through it.”

Barring injury, Hart plans to play after college whether he gets drafted or not. Not even overseas leagues are out of the question.

But for right now, his focus is on 2017.

While Garber’s turf isn’t quite the green grass that will soon be alive and well at Earl Lorden, it works just fine for Hart. He was still out there treating the mid-February practice like it was an A-10 game in April.

Giving it all he can and a little extra. It’s the same way he got here, and the same way he plans to leave.

Philip Sanzo can be reached at psanzo@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo.

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