Belmont's Zac Mitchell willing to take his lumps to take a base

Monday, May 21, 2012 at 8:34pm

Zac Mitchell insists his stance hasn’t changed.

The left-handed hitter steps into the appropriate side of the batter’s box, digs in his cleats and lets his 5-foot-8 frame shrink the strike zone.

But the Belmont senior says he doesn’t crowd the plate. He is just as surprised as anyone that he has been hit by a pitch 28 times, which is a school record and fourth-most in Division I baseball this season. 

“I honestly have no idea why it’s happening,” Mitchell said. “I haven’t really changed anything from years past. I just can’t quite get out of the way, I guess. But it doesn’t bother me because I like getting on base.”

His knack for reaching first boosts Belmont, which begins the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament at 6 p.m. on Wednesday against host and No. 6 seed Stetson in DeLand, Fla.

The Bruins (35-21) are the defending tournament champions and hold the top seed in the six-team field. They clinched their first A-Sun regular-season championship by sweeping rival Lipscomb last weekend.

Painful as the season has been for Mitchell, given the number of times he has been plunked, he has been a constant in an infield that has consistently adjusted because of injuries.

Third baseman Greg Brody (back) and shortstop Jared Breen (broken thumb) have missed games, opening up windows for freshmen Matt Beaty and Scott Moses. At first base, Judah Akers (hamstring) and Phillip Parsley have split time.

But Mitchell has been the mainstay at second base – a position he hadn’t played since his days at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis. He played third base in 2011 but moved to the right side of the field this spring. Belmont coach Dave Jarvis and assistant Scott Hall believed his lateral speed was more advantageous to prevent seeing-eye singles. Plus, his arm strength allows him to easily turn double plays.

“We feel like Zac gives us tremendous versatility,” Jarvis said. “I’d list Zac definitely as being one of the most valuable players in this conference. His contributions to this team and the things that he has done in this league are outstanding.”

Mitchell leads the league with a .492 on-base percentage thanks to a.351 batting average and 68 hits – team-highs – along with 28 walks. When he gets on, he doesn’t often waste opportunities. He leads the A-Sun with 68 runs scored and his 18 stolen bases are a team-high.

Adapting to life as a human target, however, is new.

Last year, in his first season at Belmont after transferring from Motlow State Community College, he was pegged just twice while spending most of his time in the ninth spot of the lineup. Primarily batting leadoff this spring, he has seen a new mix of pitches and often watches the ball veer toward him as pitchers attempt to establish the inside corner of the plate.

“He’s within the batter’s box so I wouldn’t say he crowds the plate. His stance is very normal,” Jarvis said. “He’s fearless in there and he doesn’t jump out of the way any time someone pitches inside. He’s got a fearless attitude up there at the plate.”

Thus when pitches go awry, Mitchell feels the pain. He’s been hit from head to toe – literally – collecting bumps on his foot, lower and upper leg, ribs, back, elbow and shoulder. His bell was rung last month against Vanderbilt when the fourth pitch of the game smacked him in the helmet.

Not once has he failed to walk down to first base.

“No pinch runners for me,” he said. “If I get hit I think it is a pick-me-up for the team. They kind of get excited whenever I get hit. I guess I can get excited when I get hit too.

“I usually just shake it off and head down to first.”