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April 30, 2010
By Bill Hass
That’s the job of a leadoff hitter and, while simple in premise, it’s one of the tougher tasks in the game. If he does his job, his team increases its chance to win. If he’s kept off the bases, things become more difficult.
Georgia Tech, ranked No. 4 in the nation by USA Today, can give a good deal of credit for its 35-7 record to leadoff hitter Jeff Rowland. The junior center fielder is hitting .345 and has scored 60 runs. In ACC games only, he’s second in the league with 27 runs scored.
“He’s certainly a table-setter,” said Yellow Jackets coach Danny Hall. “He’s done a great job three years running of getting on base and putting pressure on people because he can steal bases.”
Hall had the leadoff role and center field job in mind when he recruited Rowland out of Augusta, Ga. Rowland stepped right in the spot left by Danny Payne, an outstanding player who was a high draft choice in 2007. For Rowland, it was a continuation of something he had been doing most of his baseball career.
“I like being able to be the guy to set the tone for our team and set kind of a benchmark for everyone else,” he said. “I usually like to take a few pitches but it mainly depends on the pitcher I’m facing. If it’s a guy that I know likes to get it in and has a good breaking ball that I don’t feel like messing with, then I’ll sit in there and look for a good pitch to hit. If he throws me a fastball right down the middle, I’m not afraid to swing at it. I don’t really want to pass up too many of those.”
Hall said he trusts Rowland to make the decision on whether to take some pitches or jump on one early that he knows he can handle.
“The first at-bat, obviously, I want to let my guys see a lot of pitches,” Rowland said. “I want to make the pitcher throw every pitch he has to let everyone see what he has. But I really try to treat every at-bat the same and go up there with the same mindset that I’m going to come out on top.”
Rowland uses his ability to hit to all fields, his speed to lay down a bunt and his batting eye to draw walks. Once he’s on base, the Jackets have plenty of mashers to send him across the plate. Tony Plagman has 57 RBIs, Derek Dietrich and Chase Burnette 50 each, Matt Skole 44 and Cole Leonida 43.
Defensively, Rowland uses his speed to run down a lot of fly balls.
“Just being able to roam all over the outfield and being able to lay out and make nice plays and throw guys out, I love it,” he said. “I love playing out there.”
Rowland’s love for baseball comes from deep roots. One uncle, Buddy Rowland, was a catcher who played some independent league ball. Another uncle, Parker Rowland, was a standout pitcher at West Georgia.
But the biggest influence on him was his grandfather, Wilton Rowland, who played professionally in 1947 in the Florida State League.
“He’s my idol,” Jeff Rowland said. “I look up to him more than anybody else in this world. He taught me how to play and he taught me how to play the right way. He played third base and was a leadoff guy as well. He just taught me everything I know about the game.”
Rowland said his mother has videos of him around age 4, swinging a softball bat in his grandfather’s backyard. Wilton Rowland, who lives in Augusta, comes to as many home series as he can and occasionally will make a road trip to see his grandson play. And the two communicate regularly.
“I can call him about anything – baseball, life, anything,” Jeff Rowland said. “He’s always willing to help me out.”
Because he came from a good high school program (Greenbrier HS) and played against good competition during the summers, Rowland was not overwhelmed by the jump in competition to college baseball. He hit .335 and scored 47 runs as a freshman and moved up to .340 and 66 runs as a sophomore.
He has shown a bit of power, hitting four homers with 26 RBIs as a freshman, eight homers and 39 RBIs as a sophomore and eight homers with 34 RBIs so far this year.
“I’ve always had a little bit of pop, not much,” he said. “My home runs aren’t really high fliers, they’re mostly line drives that just take off. They’re more of an accident, really.”
While Rowland will take those when they come, he’s more likely to use a weapon that takes advantage hitting left-handed – a bunt. Defenses can’t afford to play on their heels when he’s up. If he sees the third baseman or first baseman playing back, he’s likely to lay one down.
“Or even if they’re playing in,” he said, “if I feel I can lay one down in front of the pitcher and I don’t think anybody can get it, I don’t really hesitate.”
Although Rowland is playing well now, that wasn’t the case early in the season. He was scuffling enough that when the Jackets went to play a series at Maryland in late March and lost the first game, Hall moved Jay Dantzler to the leadoff spot and dropped Rowland to eighth.
Dantzler responded with a 4-for-6 game that included two homers and eight RBIs. But Rowland also contributed to the 24-4 rout by getting two hits, drawing three walks and scoring five runs. They stayed in the same spots for the third game, a 10-3 Tech win, and Rowland had a home run, a walk and two runs scored.
In that game, Dantzler was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken wrist. Rowland returned to the leadoff spot in the next game, against Mercer, where he has remained.
“Ever since the Maryland series, he has been very consistent swinging the bat,” Hall said. “He was getting underneath the ball and we tried to emphasize that he needs to get on top of the ball and try to hit the ball on the ground. Ever since he’s done a good job of getting on top and in particular he’s going the other way very well.”
Rowland said that early in the season he was trying to make too many things happen instead of doing what his grandfather taught him – don’t try to pull the ball, but use the rest of the field.
“Here lately I’ve just gone back to the old ways and wherever they throw it, I hit it,” he said. “I’m just trying to get on it and do what I can to help my team win.”
The Jackets have three ACC series remaining, including one that starts Friday at NC State. After the regular season comes postseason, by which time Hall hopes to have Dantzler back in the lineup.
One of Tech’s goals, Rowland said, is to win the Coastal Division of the ACC. The Jackets are 16-5, one game ahead of Virginia and Miami. Another goal is to win the ACC tournament in Greensboro. After that comes the NCAA playoffs, where Tech has lost each of the last two years in the championship game of regional play.
“Our end goal is to be in Omaha (for the College World Series) and contend in Omaha and hopefully win in Omaha,” Rowland said.
There’s also a matter of the baseball draft in June. Hall believes Rowland will be drafted, and then there will be a decision to make on whether to get started on his pro career or return for his senior year at Tech.
“It’s honestly a life-long goal,” Rowland said about a pro career. “If the opportunity presents itself, I’ll be ready to look into that. Right now I’m enjoying college baseball.”
And why not? Setting the table, scoring runs and playing center field for one of the country’s best teams has its own rewards.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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