Mind games make Lipscomb's Messer a better player

Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 9:50pm

Last spring, Zak Messer looked at baseball from a new perspective — from the stands.

An ACL injury just four games into his senior season at Lipscomb kept him from playing baseball the first time in his life. Unexpectedly, though, as he sat in the crowd and charted pitches to aide his teammates and coaches, he saw the game from a different vantage point.

“Kids these days don’t watch baseball games as much as they used to and as much as we did when I was growing up,” Lipscomb coach Jeff Forehand said. “To figure out some of the smaller things that you only can get when you watch from behind and get that perspective I really think that helped him with his mental approach to hitting, defense and everything.”

One year later, Messer and the Bison are reaping the benefits.

The hard-hitting second baseman leads the team in nearly every offensive category as Lipscomb (13-16, 6-3) finds itself one game out of first place in the Atlantic Sun Conference with a month to go.

Messer is making the most of the medical redshirt year he was awarded with a .352 batting average and 29 RBIs. Batting out of third spot in the lineup, he has crushed eight home runs, 12 doubles and 21 extra-base hits for a slugging percentage of .684, including an astonishing mark of .848 in league games. His 78 total bases are tied for eighth-most in Division I.

“It has been a huge surprise,” said Messer, who earned the school’s first A-Sun player of the week honor a week ago. “I’m usually not a person that gets going early. It has been a blessing just to be able to get going like this to help our team out.”

Not only has he helped his teammates out at the plate but his versatility in the infield allows the Bison to plug holes.

When he transferred from Walters State (Tenn.) Community College in 2010, he started at shortstop and then moved to third base last year before he was injured. Primarily used to playing on the middle of the infield, he moved to the other side to fill a void at first base.

“Learning the footwork over at first base was a little difficult,” Messer said. “But we worked on it all fall. Every day at practice we would do a little early work, trying to work on picking balls and getting the footwork done to running over to the bag and everything.”

As he began to settle in there, Forehand again asked him to relocate as another injury left the Bison looking for a second baseman. Describing it as an easier transition, the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder has committed only two errors this season.

“He is just a guy that has been pretty versatile for us all the way around,” Forehand said. “No complaints at this point about what he is doing defensively either. That’s been a plus.”

Just digging in the dirt again on the diamond is a welcome feeling for Messer.

In less than a year, the Bristol, Va., native suffered two excruciating injuries. Two days after his junior season ended in 2010, Messer underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, usually most common with pitchers. He cited overuse as the culprit as he played in 56 summer games after his sophomore year at Walters State.

That caused him to miss all of Lipscomb fall practices but he was fully recovered by the start of the 2011 season. He didn’t make out of the first weekend before the freak injury cost him the rest of the season.

Running from second to third on a high grounder toward the third baseman, Messer had to redirect to avoid the Bradley infielder who had stepped up in the basepath to field the ball. As Messer dug in his cleats to spin around the third baseman, he heard a “snap, crackle and pop.”

“As soon as [the athletic trainer] came to me and I was laying on the ground I just told him my knee was gone,” Messer said. “I knew it was over. It was a weird feeling. It felt like nothing was connected basically. ... That was a mental struggle for me for sure. That saying is true: you never know what you have until it is gone. I’ve never had an injury that has kept me out of playing baseball my entire life. Just when it got taken away, it was like, ‘Wow, baseball could be taken away just like that.’ It really has put it into perspective this year and made it more meaningful every time I go out.”

So he embraced his role as observer and began to pick up on pitchers’ tendencies. As a middle-of-the-order hitter, he realized he needed to be prepared for “the pitch I am going to get instead of what I want.”

Carrying over this mindset into his final season enables him to pounce on pitching — even if it is not the one he was looking for.

Of course, Messer has experience in viewing things from a new perspective.

“My junior year I was always looking for that one pitch I could hit over the fence,” he said. “I didn’t really think about the pitch sequence I was going to get. I really started figuring out that part of the game and it has helped a lot.”