By David Driver
For the Ball State University athletics website
Used with permission
By David Driver/Special Consultant
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The late baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams once said "I think without question the hardest single thing to do in sport is hit a baseball."
Jeremy Hazlebaker, 29, a former Ball State standout, takes that a step further when discussing the role of a pinch-hitter in Major League Baseball.
"I firmly believe it is the hardest thing to do in sports," he said, standing his locker in the clubhouse of the Arizona Diamondbacks during a recent road trip to Nationals Park.
But Hazelbaker has become adept at the role as a pinch-hitter and key reserve outfielder for the Diamondbacks.
This comes after he made his Major League debut in 2016 while tying the single-season team record with four pinch-hit home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals. He hit .235 with 12 homers in 114 games with the Cardinals last season.
"It is a dream come true, a big sense of accomplishment," he said of making the majors. "It is something you have been working on for years and years that finally happened. It was a big thing for me personally and a big thing for my family. It was a great experience and a great opportunity."
This season with Arizona he reached base in his first eight consecutive plate appearances (six hits, two walks), becoming the first player since Ramon Hernandez in 2006 to pull that off.
Since the start of the 2016 season Hazelbaker ranks among the top pinch-hitters in the majors in hits, slugging, extra-base hits and average.
"You come off the bench in the eighth or seventh (inning) to face the long guy or closer," he said of opposing relief pitchers. "You have to be geared up to hit 98 or 97 (miles per hour) with guys who have a good secondary pitch and good third pitch he is very comfortable with. You have to be geared up and locked in. It is definitely a difficult thing to do."
"You think about what the pitcher is going to throw, about the previous time you faced them," added Hazelbaker, who may have to rely on videotape from the previous season. "You kind of go through a lot of different things to figure out what is going to happen in that at bat and how to approach it. You have to be ready at all times."
Arizona manager Torey Lovullo, in his first season at the helm, is not surprised to see Hazelbaker excel in his reserve role.
The left-handed hitter came off the bench to smash his first homer of the season, going deep against Washington veteran reliever Joe Blanton here on May 2 in the top of the ninth inning in a 6-3 victory that helped move Arizona into first in the National League West division.
He was 3-for-7 as a pinch-hitter through May 2 and overall was hitting .320 in 25 at bats spread out over 20 games.
Lovullo was the bench coach for the Boston Red Sox from 2013-16, and Hazelbaker was drafted out of Ball State by the Red Sox in the fourth round in 2009.
"He is working hard behind the scenes to get ready for that moment. That is because he is studying and understanding how the pitcher is going to work him," said Tovullo, sitting in the Arizona dugout before a game here May 2. "The numbers that he has don't surprise me because of what he is doing behind the scenes to make sure that moment doesn't get away from him."
That work includes hitting in an indoor cage or just staying loose during the early parts of a game, according to Hazelbaker.
By the fourth inning or so he is prepared to enter the game, whether on a defensive switch in the middle of an inning with Arizona in the field or as a pinch-hitter late in the game when the D-backs need a hit.
Hazelbaker was an all-state player at Wapahani High School in Selma and came to Ball State after turning down the chance to play at Purdue.
He entered Ball State as an infielder but then made the fortuitous move to the outfield.
"The first couple of years I was an infielder. I kind of struggled my sophomore year and the decision was made to move me to the outfield," he said. "We had (all-MAC player) Wayne Bond, Jr., and I watched him play. I kind of tried to mimic his game a little bit my junior year. It kind of worked for me; I kind of hit the ground running my junior year."
Hazelbaker was a second-team All-American as a junior and ranked second in Division I in on-base average at .550, fourth in runs with 77 and sixth in triples with eight.
After being drafted by the Red Sox he made his pro debut in 2009 in Lowell, Massachusetts, and in Greenville, South Carolina.
Hazelbaker reached the highest level of the Boston farm system – Triple-A Pawtucket of the International League in 2012-13 – before he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2013 season.
He played in the Dodgers minor league system in 2014 then signed with the Cardinals as a minor league free agent on May 13, 2015. Hazelbaker was claimed off waivers by the D-backs on Nov. 4, 2016.
Hazelbaker is proud of his small-college roots.
"I feel like in this game you have to prove yourself no matter what," he said. "When you get drafted it is not about where you went to college. It is about what you bring to the table with this team and the organization you are with. In a sense I had more to prove because I wasn't from a giant college, a giant school. At the same time I felt I was going to get the same chances and opportunity, the same (amount of) at bats, the same time in the outfield" as other minor leaguers.
Hazelbaker has taken advantage of those opportunities, and is now a super sub for the Diamondbacks.
Editor's note: David Driver is a free-lance writer and former college baseball player from Maryland. He covers the Washington Nationals for The Sports Xchange, a national content provider, and can be reached at www.davidsdriver.com