By CONOR NICHOLL
In two years with Duquesne (Pa.) University and the Hays Larks, Andrew Heck has developed several constants: he'll be flexible, can play anywhere on the diamond, pitches effectively, and improves every season.
That pattern has held through six games this summer for Heck and the Larks. After a strong spring season as the Dukes' super-utilityman, Heck is one of five Larks' players to start in all six games and carries a .438 average, third-best on the Hays' roster. It marks the fourth straight year Heck has improved his batting average. One the mound, Heck tossed five shutout innings against the Denver Cougars last Saturday and is the projected starter tonight in a road game against Derby.
"He is a competitor out there," Larks manager Frank Leo said. "He loves to play the game. He loves to compete and he has taken his game up a level, which is what you need to do."
Just like the spring and last summer, Heck has constantly moved around in Hays' order and lineup, batting sixth, seventh and eighth and starting games at third base, shortstop, left field, pitcher and designated hitter. He also played right field as a late-inning replacement.
"I like all of them," Heck said. "I am comfortable at all of them for the most part."
Last spring, Heck mainly played shortstop as a freshman for Duquesne and batted .222 with 12 RBIs and a 4.91 ERA in 11 innings on the mound. Entering the summer, Heck thought he would be a backup behind shortstop Mike Brownstein, a returning all-Jayhawk League player and a selection in the 2009 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
"I definitely didn't expect to play as much as I did when I heard Brownstein was coming, but he went down, so I played a little more," Heck said.
Brownstein missed several weeks because of a wrist injury and Heck started most of the year, collecting a .277 average and a .360 on-base percentage. Among Larks regulars, only Brownstein (who hit a team-best .411) saw a bigger jump in batting average from his spring collegiate season. In the National Baseball Congress World Series at Wichita, Hays ran out of pitching and needed a starter for a 2:30 a.m. elimination game against Liberal. Heck, who had made one start and pitched in five games all season, delivered a quality outing, a start that impressed Leo and solidified a place on Hays' roster for 2009.
Before Heck returned to school, though, he talked with Larks pitching coach Keith Harper.
"I thought my strong points last year were throwing the fastball and the changeup; what I did against Liberal in the NBC," Heck said. "Talked to Harper at the end of last year and we kind of said that I needed a better slider."
This spring, Heck saw more improvement for a Dukes team that started 0-12 and went 14-41. He started at least one game at six positions -- second base, shortstop, third base, pitcher, center field (season-high 21 games), and DH. No other Duquesne player started at more than four positions. The 6-foot-2 205-pound Heck overcame a torn ligament in his thumb that cost him two weeks, hit in four different spots in order and batted .314 with a .486 slugging percentage, five homers and 24 RBIs.
"I almost got first base in and I am sure they could throw me behind the plate if they wanted to," he said. "It definitely helps you out to find the field, especially when you are playing with good competition. I know you find a comfort area. I find the infield comforting on nice fields to play on, but I know when you are playing on those not so nice of infields, it's nice to go to the outfield."
Pitching-wise, Heck was arguably the Dukes' top hurler with a 3.78 ERA in 521βΡ3 innings.
Heck liked playing any position on the diamond, but found he enjoyed better numbers when he started in the outfield.
"I just think that you are able to concentrate a little bit more when you are playing out in centerfield," he said. "You do take a bigger role when you are playing the infield, shortstop, third base, type of deal. Action is right there along the way. A lot of fast action, a lot of knowing what is going on, a lot of thinking. When you are in the outfield, it is a little more laid back and you are able to worry about hitting a little bit."
Leo envisioned Heck in a similar role for Hays: playing multiple positions, in the pitching rotation and continually improving.
"When you are a freshman, okay, you are getting your feet on the ground in college baseball," Leo said. "He had a better sophomore season at Duquesne and has I followed him this spring, I was saying, I was anxious to get him back out here to see that progression that he is going to make in the summer. So far, it has been a great progression."
Heck has been among the Larks' leaders in average all season, with at least one hit and .545 average after the season-opening four-game homestand. Against Denver, helped by the improved slider, he worked five shutout innings for his first win of the year.
"I had it going in the first inning and the first few innings I lost it and Harper kind of came out and talked to me and told me what I needed to get it going again," Heck said. "The slider is a definite help, and I think that it will definitely help me to go to the next level pitching-wise."
Heck bumped his hitting streak to five games before going hitless for the first time last night.
The 0-for-3 game, though, dropped his average down to .438 -- a 124-point improvement from this spring and continued progression for the utilityman.
"Definitely a year of experience out here and knowing what you are looking for and what to expect out here, it's good," Heck said.