The bellowing came from behind him during batting practice, almost as if a heckling fan was taunting the Fresno State freshman up close.
“That’s not you,” the man hollered after Zach Ashford hit a fly ball that was caught in the outfield. “Not you.”
Ashford didn’t need to look back to know who was yelling or to better understand the message. Besides, Ashford and Fresno State coach Mike Batesole had talked about it multiple times before:
Know what type of hitter you are. Hit to your strength. Do what you do best.
It’s been a nonstop learning process for the former Buchanan High star since arriving at Fresno State. But with ongoing tutelage from Batesole, the outfielder has gradually become a catalyst for the Bulldogs as their leadoff hitter.
At times, Ashford’s command of the strike zone and ability to adjust to a pitch mid at-bat has been reminiscent of Danny Muno, the program’s all-time walks leader and No. 2 career hits leader who batted leadoff for the Bulldogs from 2008-2011.
Fresno State (14-7, 4-2 Mountain West) had been on a seven-game slide before the left-handed hitting Ashford was inserted atop the lineup. The Bulldogs have won three straight since.
.394 Batting average of freshman Zach Ashford, a team-best
In eight starts, Ashford has hit .479 (11 of 23) with eight runs and six RBIs. For the season in 19 games, he’s hitting .394 (13 of 33) with 10 runs and seven RBIs.
“He’s a very mature hitter,” Batesole said of Ashford. “We saw a lot of Danny Muno in him when we recruited him. I’ve only coached a couple guys who could adjust on the fly with their hands – Danny and (2005 Freshman All-American) Beau Mills. Zach looks like he could be another one of those type of guys.
“When you can adjust on the fly, you can be an exceptional two-strike hitter. So far, so good. He’s steadily getting there.”
Batesole limited Ashford’s playing time to start the year, holding him out against left-handed pitching but also giving more playing time to his older outfielders. But in the midst of the skid, Batesole went looking for solutions.
All the while, Ashford was looking for answers, too.
His approach at the plate in high school had been exceptional. In 113 at-bats as a senior last spring, Ashford hit .478 and struck out just twice.
He’s going to grow and he’s going to fail. That’s just the nature of the game. But he’s ahead of the curve.
Fresno State coach Mike Batesole on Bulldogs freshman Zach Ashford
But he soon learned that his method in high school would not work in college, certainly not at the Division I level. He discovered that over the summer while playing for a local wooden-bat league, paired with and against players from the community college, D-I and D-II ranks.
“I was getting handled,” Ashford said. “Every player is good in college, every pitcher is throwing at least in the high 80s (mph) and usually has crazy-good off-speed pitches. Then I got to Fresno State and Bates really helped me out.”
Most significantly, Ashford discovered the type of hitter he is and the strengths and weakness of his game. He could regularly hit line drives and get on base, so why ever take big swings as if he were a gap-power hitter or a power slugger?
The key to hitting at this level is understanding who you are, what your strengths are – and then, most importantly, staying true to those things when you’re at the plate.
Fresno State coach Mike Batesole
“A lot of guys don’t know the type of hitter they are because in high school, they never needed to know; they were just better than the others,” Batesole said. “The key to hitting at this level is understanding who you are, what your strengths are – and then, most importantly, staying true to those things when you’re at the plate.”
Ashford believes he’s figuring it out. His statistics suggest so, too.
Batesole lengthened the leash on Ashford’s playing time and gave him a chance against left-handed pitching Tuesday in Fresno State’s 6-4 win at Saint Mary’s. Ashford responded by going 1 for 2 with a run and two RBIs.
“He’s going to grow and he’s going to fail,” Batesole said. “That’s just the nature of the game. But he’s ahead of the curve.”
FRESNO STATE AT SAN JOSE STATE
- Series: Thursday and Friday, 6 p.m.; Saturday, 1 p.m. at Municipal Stadium
- Records: Bulldogs 14-7, 4-2 Mountain West; Spartans 6-13, 2-6
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940)
- Of note: San Jose pitching staff includes ex-Hoover High right-hander Logan Handzlik (1-0, 6.20 ERA in five starts) and former Selma right-hander Hilario Tovar (2-2, 6.05 in seven games, two starts)