TERRE HAUTE —
What college baseball player is near the .500-mark as a leadoff batter, is the team’s closer and now a complete-game starting pitcher too?
If you answered Rose-Hulman sophomore Hank Akard, you may move to the head of the class.
After limited playing time as a freshman, Akard has been an offensive catalyst this season, leading off while patrolling center field with a .473 batting average.
Akard emerged as a closer in his freshman year at Rose, picking up four saves, and has three more this season.
Interestingly enough, Akard is already tied for No. 2 in career saves at Rose-Hulman.
This season alone, he’s passed Tim Watson, Brad Jones, Ben Stenger and tied Matt Salisbury (7 saves). Being only a sophomore, he is well in range of career leader Sam Deters (18 saves).
If that wasn’t enough, Rose coach Jeff Jenkins hinted last week Akard might be utilized as a starter too. On Sunday, all Akard did in his first collegiate start was be the winning, complete-game pitcher in Rose’s 3-1 victory — the only run was unearned — at Defiance.
Akard matriculated to the Engineers after being a No. 1 pitcher and a hard-hitting and solid defensive shortstop at Ben Davis High School.
By the numbers this season, Akard has 35 hits, showing a bit of power with 10 doubles and a pair of triples. Speed too. He has five stolen bases. As a hurler, he has allowed just one earned run in 20 innings, for a minuscule 0.45 earned run average.
In other words, he’s been a huge factor in Rose getting off to a 12-4 start, 3-0 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.
“I’m a very aggressive hitter, which is kind of unusual for a leadoff role,” Akard stated. “I see a pitch and I like to hit. I don’t walk too often. I’m more of a contact kind of guy. Doubles guy and into the gaps. Not too many home runs.”
Akard admitted the word has gotten around of his prolific hitting, saying, “I’m starting to see a lot less fast balls. Lot more pitchers are starting to throw around me more, a lot of curve balls away. I’m just having to adjust, go the other way a lot more.”
When he made those previous comments, he’d been batting well over .500. It took a 1-for-12 series at Defiance to drop him to his current .473 average.
“Predicting I was going to put up plus-.500 numbers you can’t really assume you’re going to do that,” Akard also mentioned last week.
As for his mound duties, he’s willing to do what is needed for the team.
“Closer role is kind of different for me,” Akard noted. “I’ve been able to throw harder now that I’m in college, put some miles per hour on my fast ball, so it’s a lot easier to get guys out.”
“He’s 87, 88 [miles per hour] on the gun right now,” Jenkins stated. “He’s our hardest thrower by far. He just competes. You may get him once, but boy he’s going to get you the next two times. He just wants to win and he’ll do whatever it takes.”
Asked to describe himself as a pitcher, Akard replied, “I throw a lot of strikes. I’m not much of a strikeout kind of pitcher, but I get a lot of ground balls and pop flies. Keep the ball down.”
In his starting debut, he recorded 16 groundball outs with just four flyouts, an impressive 4:1 ratio.
How does he balance the responsibilities of hitting and pitching, in practice and during games?
“People ask me that a lot,” Akard smiled. “I spend a lot more time on hitting, because that’s my first role. But I throw all year long to keep my arm in shape. It’s a lot to think about and a lot to have on your plate. You just have to focus on both aspects.”
Jenkins nearly beams when extolling the virtues of Akard.
“He’s done it all,” Jenkins grinned. “He’s the ultimate competitor. He’s not very big, but he’s probably the strongest kid on the team pound-for-pound. He’s our fastest guy and he’s just relentless. He’s a baseball player. A Dustin Pedroia [Boston Red Sox standout], a grinder, just gives it all he has all the time.”
Jenkins likes to relate a story about Akard from earlier this season, during their annual Florida trip, that shows that competitive fire.
“In Florida he gave up a two-out, two-strike game-tying home run against Loras,” Jenkins recalled. “He’s our closer, mind you, never pitches more than an inning. He threw the next four innings of shutout ball. They never touched him.
“He threw five innings in 90-degree heat after he’s played outfield for eight innings. He played all 15 innings that game, never missed a beat. After he gave up that run, he came off [the field] and I said, ‘Are you good enough for another [inning]?’ He said, ‘I’m good for as long as you need me.’
“Then he came back and played nine innings in ball games the next two days. Just been phenomenal for us.”
While Akard was a standout shortstop at Ben Davis, he’s playing outfield out of necessity … and Jenkins couldn’t be more pleased.
“Hank probably could be one of the best shortstops or second basemen on the team, but we knew we lacked outfielders this year … and we lacked speed,” Jenkins said. “So we asked him to go [to outfield] this fall and the more reps he’s got, the better he’s gotten.”
Akard is keeping a level head despite his early outstanding play.
“Just have to stay humble,” Akard said. “It’s a real humbling game. I mean I can slump hitting and pitching at any time. I’ve just go to keep working hard.”
Oh yes, being at Rose, he’s a pretty good student too.
“Interested in design-type work,” Akard stated. “I want to go into architecture. Civil engineering at Rose is a good opportunity, a big reason I came here.”
• Rose-Hulman baseball team leader Hank Akard:
At bats — 74
Runs scored — 20
Hits — 35
Doubles — 10
Triples (tied) — 2
Total bases — 49
Stolen bases — 5
Batting avg. — .473
Saves — 3
Earned run avg. — 0.45