April 14, 2003
by Brian Betz, staff writer
The Santa Clara
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - What do you want first, the scary news or the real scary news? The scary news is what Santa Clara senior left fielder Scott Dierks is doing to opposing pitchers.
Dierks is the West Coast Conference's leader in batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage and home runs. And he is arguably the West Coast Conference's most valuable player at the midpoint of the season.
In his second season at Santa Clara, O'Brien has been privileged to see the transformation his left fielder has undergone since Dierks transferred over from DeAnza Junior College last year. Coming off of a woeful 2002 campaign in which Dierks hit .260 with no home runs, the determined senior started hitting the gym, and the field, harder than ever.
"I started going to the gym six days a week, two hours a day," Dierks said before pausing. "Then I hit the cages for an hour or an hour and a half to revamp my swing."
He spends time working on what O'Brien refers to as 'staying inside the ball' to prevent from hooking pitches and to improve his ability at hitting to all fields.
The result (take a deep breath): a .453 average, 24 RBIs, 13 home runs, eight doubles, a .557 on base percentage, a 1.000 slugging percentage and 25 runs scored. All of which eclipse his 2002 numbers that included nearly the same plate appearances he has seen this season. His batting average looks like a typo in print when you consider the next closest hitter in the West Coast Conference is .076 points behind him.
I almost forgot the real scary news. Dierks barely played in the first 15 games of the year. The only action he saw was as a pinch runner or as an occasional pinch hitter. All in all, Dierks only registered five plate appearances over that time. He did not become a mainstay in the Broncos lineup until two months ago, when he hit one so far to dead center that Cal Poly's outfielders are probably still backtracking somewhere around Santa Cruz.
So why wasn't he starting before?
"Bad coaching," O'Brien chuckled. "We needed a guy off the bench with some intensity and that was going to be him. But he started taking great batting practice and we said 'we can't keep him out of here anymore' and ever since he's taken advantage of the opportunity."
Since then it's been Dierks' passion that has served as an intangible catalyst for an improving 16-20 squad that has won six of its past seven WCC games.
"At practice he'll go head first into second during a drill getting everybody fired up, it's classic," said O'Brien. "Sometimes in batting practice he'll lean out and get hit by a pitch just because. Our team feeds off of Scott Dierks."
More than that, Dierks' leadoff position raises problems for opposing starters. And that goes beyond his five leadoff home runs this season. When most pitchers want to start the game off with a fastball, they are forced to find a separate game plan against Dierks.
"He takes guys off their rhythm," said O'Brien. "I can't tell you how many times I've seen a game start off with a breaking ball in the dirt."
Sunday's series finale against San Francisco provided one example. Dierks led off with a solo shot, 1-0 Santa Clara. Seven more Broncos came to the plate that inning resulting in three more runs, including a Jim Wallace two-run shot. Dons starter T.J. Franco exited after 1 1/3 inning and the Broncos went on to take the game and sweep the series.
"Rickey Henderson had the ability to hit any ball out of the park, and if you downscale that to the college level, he's doing the same thing," said San Francisco Coach Nino Giarratano. "That changes the pitcher's mindset from aggressive to passive because he's such a power hitter, and it makes it tough to change that back."
One thing that won't change is Dierks' spot in the order, even though his power seems typical of a cleanup hitter.
"We're going with the philosophy of 'don't fix it if it isn't broke'," said O'Brien. "I think he gets guys pumped up leading off a game and right now there's a 50-50 chance he'll lead off and get on base."
Dierks is in fact hitting .500 against righties. In the field Dierks has surprised his coaches. Despite committing four errors in left field, he has been more than adequate for O'Brien.
"He's surprised us with his outfield defense," said O'Brien. "Early on there was a dropped fly ball but other than that he's been great. If a ball gets by him it is not because he's lackadaisical, it's because he charges too hard."
Whatever the case, Dierks has not become the heart of the team because of his glove.
"Scott Dierks is why you coach baseball," said O'Brien. "The best thing he's done with his success is that he hasn't changed. And that's scary because what he's doing is abnormal and that doesn't go into a normal season."
The only thing that isn't scary about Dierks' 2003 campaign is his one stolen base.
"I just look to get a pitch that I can drive into a gap or over the fence," said Dierks.
Then again it is tough to steal a base when you spend all your time circling them.