Kyle Battle Leads Powerful Old Dominion To Victory
NORFOLK, Va. - All seniors during the 2020 season were happy to have the option to return for another go around in college baseball in 2021, but few have been as happy to have it as Old Dominion left fielder Kyle Battle and even fewer have taken advantage of it to the same degree.
On Friday, Battle was the star of the show offensively for the Monarchs in an 8-3 victory against No. 19 Charlotte to begin a crucial four-game series.
Against Charlotte righthander Bryce McGowan, one of the best arms in Conference USA, Battle wasted no time in getting his team on the board, lining a missile over the left-center field wall on the fifth pitch of the ballgame. The wind was howling out, but he didn’t need the help.
In the second inning, he lined a ball hard to center field for a sacrifice fly. In the fourth, he roped a double into the left field corner and later scored, and in the sixth, he went ahead let the wind help him a little bit.
Leading off the inning and still facing McGowan, the right-handed hitting Battle lifted a high fly ball the other way to right field. The Charlotte right fielder Jake Cunningham looked to have it lined up, but he drifted back, drifted back some more, and suddenly, the ball was over the wall for another home run, giving ODU a 6-3 lead.
“I think just facing (McGowan) last week, he kind of attacked us all the same way, so we started to learn from it from last week and we capitalized today,” Battle said.
Battle truly is having a dream season for a player who got a reprieve in the form of an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA after last season.
After his 3-for-3 day, which also included a hit by pitch in the seventh for good measure, he’s hitting .295/.452/.674 with eight doubles, 13 home runs and 40 RBI, with nearly twice as many walks (38) as strikeouts (20). It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility with a strong finish that he could be looking at conference player of the year honors.
“I think this season is awesome,” Battle said. “This is my last year here, I mean last year I thought it was my last year, so I’m grateful to be back. It’s been a rocky road, but that’s how it goes, success isn’t in a straight line.”
The rocky road that Battle alludes to is what makes this season particularly special. Battle has always had plenty of ability, and he’s always been productive, such as in his freshman season of 2017, when he hit .341. Since then, the issue hasn’t been production, but rather staying on the field.
“It’s the first time he’s been healthy since he was a freshman,” Old Dominion coach Chris Finwood said. “He’s had three shoulder surgeries. He is the best kid in the world, and he plays at such an even keel. And he was just ready to go today, and boy, he had some big at-bats for us.”
The Old Dominion offense as a whole enjoyed a pretty good day against a quality pitcher in McGowan, scoring six runs against him on nine hits and four walks in six innings of work. The Monarchs scored runs in four of his six frames, and even as he put up a zero in the third inning, ODU pushed him by loading the bases before he retired the side.
Finwood echoed Battle’s sentiment about having a better feel for McGowan after the Charlotte righty gave up just four hits and three runs in six innings against ODU last weekend.
“He threw a lot more sliders last week than we were anticipating, and so we were a little more ready for that today, I thought,” Finwood said. “He didn’t quite have the same fastball, I don’t think, as he had last Friday. Last Friday, it was ticking up a little bit better than it was today, and you know, these are college kids. They give up some home runs and they don’t feel quite as good about themselves as when they’re striking guys out.”
The Monarchs can also maybe thank architecture for assisting in the win. The school recently built a chemistry building right behind the center field wall. Not only does the brown brick provide a pretty good backdrop for hitters, in addition to the existing batter’s eye, but there’s some though that where it’s placed in relation to the stadium has created a phenomenon where the wind blows out more consistently.
2021 NCAA Baseball Tournament Friday Regionals Scores, Results, Analysis, TV & more
Baseball America's home for scores and analysis from the opening day of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
“The wind has kind of blown like this all year since they’ve built that chemistry building,” Finwood said. “I’m not a meteorologist, but it’s flown out for us all year and we’ve taken advantage of it.”
Perhaps that’s been a piece of the puzzle, but this is also simply an Old Dominion team that wants to win that way. They hunt for extra-base hits.
ODU came into the weekend leading the country in slugging percentage, which sits at .540 now, and it has an astounding 70 home runs this season, behind only Arkansas for the national lead. Seven different players have at least five homers. Battle leads with 13, but freshman second baseman Carter Trice has 10, right fielder Andy Garriola has nine and first baseman Matt Coutney has eight.
Old Dominion can pitch it a little bit, too. After Friday’s win, it has a 3.89 team ERA. Bullpen stopper Jason Hartline, who closed out the victory with two scoreless innings, has a 1.24 ERA and 39 strikeouts compared to four walks in 29 innings.
Saturday’s starters, righthanders Nick Pantos and Hunter Gregory, both have ERAs of 2.70 or better. Lefthander Tommy Gertner, who threw four innings to begin Friday’s game, has a 3.35 ERA.
But when ODU is really humming along, it’s doing so by burying opponents with the long ball. Maybe it took Finwood a while to come around to this being the reality for his team, but he’s embracing it now.
“Every team’s a little bit different,” he said. “Some teams run and manufacture (runs), and we’ve been better just when we’ve had extra-base hits. That’s just kind of the way these guys are wired, and so a while ago, I stopped running and trying to hit-and-run and all that stuff and just let them be who they are, and they’ve done a good job with it.”
Old Dominion doesn't get to bring the chemistry building with them on the road and they won't get to take it into the postseason, but wind howling out or not, the power up and down the lineup, led by Battle in the leadoff spot, is going to be enough to make the Monarchs tough to handle when it matters most.