By CONOR NICHOLL
Andrew Heck has heard the saying before. If a player pitches and hits often at the collegiate level, either the pitching or hitting suffers. It's a belief that Heck despises.
"One might be down more than the other one," he said. "They say that you are doing a little bit too much. I hate when people tell me that I can't do both at the same time, because I know that I can."
This summer, Heck has played defense, hit and pitched at a unique level. Hays manager Frank Leo, in his 27 years with the Larks, has not had a player who is as multi-faceted as Heck, a Duquesne (Pa.) University product in his second year with the program.
"That is pretty good at this high level to be this much of a versatile guy that plays so many different defensive positions, and also pitch it well on the mound and also swing it," Leo said. "That is a just a tribute to the type of athlete that he is, and the type of competitor that he is."
Heck, a right-hander, is the team's ace with a 4-0 record and 1.82 earned-run average in a team-high 59 1/3 innings. He is the probable starter in the Larks' opener at the 75th annual National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita. Hays (27-14) will play Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Wednesday at 1 p.m. in Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
Heck, who played six positions for Duquesne in the spring, has played third base, shortstop, second base, designated hitter and both corner outfield spots for the Larks. In 95 at-bats, Heck carries a .337 average, third-highest on the club, with a team-best .526 slugging percentage. Among players currently on the roster, Heck's three homers tie for the team lead.
"I am glad that I have been able to get out and pitch and play as well as I have so far, get out and doing both," Heck said. "I like the fact that I was able to, so far, show that. That is probably what I am happy about, and I hope it continues throughout the rest of the season."
Heck, who admires Greg Maddux and Orel Hershiser, has emulated the future Hall of Famer and longtime veteran. He has constantly pounded the strike zone and worked deep into multiple starts, including pitching nine innings twice. Heck, who spots his fastball, changeup and breaking pitches effectively, and is considered one of the team's smartest pitchers, is not the Larks' hardest thrower.
His fastball tops out at 90 miles per hour and usually sits between 86-88. Heck, helped by control honed while growing up in Pittsburgh, leads the pitching staff in strikeout to walk rate (45/12) and fewest walks per nine innings (1.82).
"My dad (Jim), has always stressed it with me," Heck said. "My coaches have always stressed it. I would say that is one reason why I'm still pitching.
"In high school, I was that guy that could throw strikes. When other guys would have trouble throwing strikes, I felt that was my strong point. Back then, I had a decent arm, but I never threw quite the hardest, and I still don't believe I throw that hard, but I am able to use the strike zone to my advantage," he added.
Heck always focused on working the inside and outside parts of the plate. In high school, he worked on the outside part of the plate, while in college, he has thrown more inside.
"I am using that to my advantage, in my opinion," he said. "Guys at this level are able to sit on pitches, so you have to be able to throw inside and outside, in my opinion, keep them off balance and get outs."
Heck mixes up his pitches; against Jayhawk League champion El Dorado, he threw almost all inside. Versus weaker hitting clubs, Heck works the outside corner more frequently. Larks pitching coach Keith Harper said Heck "calls his own game." Catcher Joe Huwer also is impressed with Heck's pitching acumen.
"He is good," Huwer said. "He is a really intelligent pitcher. He knows exactly what he wants to throw, and where he wants to throw it."
Against Valley Center on Sunday, Heck walked the first batter before he retired the side.
"Coach Leo mentioned to me that he has only walked about five guys on the season," Valley Center manager Pat Hon said. "I kind of thought that was interesting. I think he looked sharp. He was in the zone and looked like he had two or three pitches that he got over for strikes to be effective."
Last summer, Heck became the Larks' starting shortstop for most of the summer after injuries to Rich Michalek and Mike Brownstein. Heck carried a .277 average and was used in spot relief. Harper, though, noticed Heck's pitching talent.
"His throw from shortstop was always right on," Harper said. "He was a good athlete, and usually the good athletes are good pitchers."
With the Larks out of pitching in the World Series, Harper asked Heck, who had made one start all summer, to start a game against Liberal that began at 2:30 a.m. A year later, Harper still remembered Heck's response: "Heavens, yes, I'll pitch." Heck delivered a quality start in a Hays loss. The performance, though, impressed Leo and cemented a roster spot on the 2009 team.
"He is a fierce competitor," Leo said. "No matter where he is at, he is going to compete."
At Duquesne, Heck emerged as the team's No. 1 pitcher and batted .314, an improvement of nearly 100 points from his freshman year. This summer, Heck entered as an option to start. He won the season's fourth game against Denver with five shutout innings and moved into the ace role by late June.
"If he is not the No. 1 for Duquesne next year, then I want to know who is," Harper said.
Because of Hays' depleted roster, Heck's work ethic and athleticism allowed him to start games at several positions before moving into mainly a pitcher/DH role in July.
"He is hitting really well out here," Rick Devereaux, Hays' first baseman and Heck's spring teammate, said. "He has turned it up a notch. He works so hard. It's just you can see the hard work paying off for him. It's nice to see when someone works that hard and it just pays off for them. It's been a good summer for him, and I think it is really going to help him out in the long run for him and the team. He battles his tail off out there."
Leo wanted to keep Heck healthy and fresh and often had the odd situation of sitting one of his best hitters. Two weeks ago, Heck played third base for three straight games and then pitched. Harper asked Heck how he felt after a six-inning start. Heck said he "wasn't at all" tired, but Leo has not played Heck every day. It will be a similar situation in the World Series.
"When he is pitching, he is not going to hit, when he is not pitching, it could be a DH or something," Leo said.
Heck, though, has wanted to play every day. As a position player, Heck has looked to Cal Ripken Jr. -- a player that never missed a game.
"Cal Ripken, he is probably one of my more favorite athletes," Heck said. "He didn't miss a game and that is pretty awesome. His workout and mentality is awesome. I would like to have that. ... I try to train to be able to get to there and do both."