As a redshirt junior for a Memphis Tiger team that finished 30-27, Zurcher led the entire country with a .443 batting average. The shortstop became the first Tiger since Dan Uggla (now an Atlanta Brave) in 2001 to earn All-America recognition from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and Collegiate Baseball/Louisville Slugger. Zurcher finished his college career with 252 hits (second all-time at the U of M) and graduated with a degree in management (he posted a 3.58 GPA). Earlier this month, Zurcher became only the third Tiger — after DeAngelo Williams and Chris Douglas-Roberts — to be named Conference USA’s Athlete of the Year.
Last month, the New York Mets selected Zurcher in the 31st round of the Major League Baseball draft. Assigned to the Mets’ Rookie League affiliate in Kingsport, Tennessee, Zurcher finds himself playing home games merely 100 miles from his hometown of Knoxville. If he can excel in the northeast corner of the Volunteer State as he did in the southwest, playing time in the Big Apple may be in his near future.
“My last [college] season was unbelievable,” he says. “I started out really well. About halfway through, I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna keep this up.’ I was seeing the ball really well. Toward the end of the year, I thought I was struggling, but the average was just so high, it was hard to keep it up.”
Zurcher attributes a conservative approach — when it comes to power numbers — for maintaining a groove over more than 50 games. “I knew I wasn’t going to hit any home runs,” he says. “I stuck to my game, and stayed in the middle of the field. Didn’t try and swing too big; just squared the ball up.”
The batting championship is a special personal achievement, but one that hasn’t exactly been a calling card during Zurcher’s early days as a pro. “I really enjoyed playing at Memphis,” he says, “so to go down with a record like that is a dream come true. I went in to win championships, and knew individual stuff would come with the success of the team. It just happened that this last year, we got to 30 wins and I was able to have a great year. It means a lot to me.”
Many of Zurcher’s new teammates don’t even know about the batting title. And fans in Kingsport seem to be more interested in Zurcher’s roots than his college accomplishments. “I didn’t come up here expecting them to know,” he says. “When they do recognize you, it’s nice. I played high school baseball against the high school here, so fans know me from that more than what I did in college.”
Zurcher was taken aback when told he’d joined U of M icons Williams and Douglas-Roberts as C-USA Athlete of the Year honorees. “It was a big-time shock,” he says. “I was in a conference heavy on football and basketball. To be a shortstop and go down with DeAngelo Williams and CDR . . . those two were the best at what they do.”
The adjustment to pro ball, according to Zurcher, is largely an adjustment to pitching consistency. There’s no off day in the Appalachian League when it comes to a hurler’s arsenal. “I’ve played with wooden bats in the past, so that hasn’t been that hard,” he says. “But all the pitchers are talented. It’s realizing you can only hit certain things at this level. Sometimes pitchers make their pitch, and you just can’t hit it. Everybody can throw 90 mph, a few in the high 80s. And they control it better. They throw it where they want and when they want.” (Zurcher was hit in the head by a pitch — a curve ball that didn’t break, as he remembers it — on July 12th at Danville and has missed 12 games as he nurses symptoms of a concussion. He expects to be back in the lineup this week.)
Through Sunday Zurcher was hitting .288 in 16 games. In addition to becoming a Mets fan (he grew up cheering for the Braves and Red Sox), Zurcher realizes his climb up the minor-league ladder will begin with strengthening his frame (6’1”, 170 lbs.). “I need to play the game hard every day,” he says. “And when the offseason comes, I need to get in the weight room, and get bigger, stronger. I’ve got to get stronger to be where I want to be.”
Image by Allen Greene