By Brian Eller - email@example.com
STRASBURG -- Imagine stepping to the plate with the task of reaching base. That seems easy enough.
Now imagine in addition to making it to first, you're instructed not to swing at the first few pitches, even if a juicy fastball should come scorching across the center of the plate.
Welcome to Zach Cover's world. As Strasburg's leadoff man, Cover has the unique task of making sure he gets on base, while at the same time giving his teammates a look at what the opposing pitcher is bringing on the mound. He needs to reach base in order to jump-start his team's offense and give his teammates a chance at an RBI. But while doing that, Cover must have the discipline and the restraint to make sure the opposing pitcher reveals as many pitches in his arsenal as possible, shifting the advantage to the hitters at the plate.
It's a job that requires the perfect combination of patience and aggressiveness. And fortunately for the Rams, Cover seems to have found the right balance.
"That's a tough spot to hit in," Strasburg coach Jeff Smoot said. "No good hitter likes to keep getting the take sign in the hitter's count when it's 2-0, 3-1 and we ask him to do that. I know it's tough for the hitters, but he's able to do that and we have enough confidence in him that even if he takes some pitches, he can hit with two strikes and still be effective."
Cover was a solid hitter as a sophomore, batting .338 for the Rams last season. This year the hybrid shortstop/pitcher has picked up right where he left off, ranking at the top of his team in terms of average.
Recently, however, Cover has been white-hot at the plate, hitting .833 over his last two games. His trips to the bag haven't gone unrewarded, either. Thanks to a lethal offense behind him, including catcher Derek Buckley and cleanup hitter Connor Gorman, Cover has crossed the plate five times during that stretch, helping his team average eight runs in those games.
"He's pretty much our tone-setter," Buckley said. "If he gets on base we're going to try and get him in, get the RBI, get an early lead and then work from there."
Even more impressive than Cover's nearly perfect average recently has been the versatility and patience of his at-bats, particularly when he leads off an inning. In Monday's 5-4 win over Stonewall Jackson, Cover went 4-for-5, with all four hits going for singles. The next night, while his team scorched Page County for 11 runs, Cover had just one hit, but accounted for more than a third of those runs, scoring four times and reaching base in all four plate appearances with two walks and a fielder's choice.
"[I need to reach] any way possible," Cover said. "I don't care if I get a hit, reach on an error, walk, it doesn't really matter. I just try to get on for the guys behind me."
His approach to each at-bat is the same, whether it's the first inning or the sixth. The key, Cover says, is to take in the first few pitches and see what the pitcher has to offer. If the hurler isn't attacking the plate, Cover will simply either draw the walk or wait until the right pitch appears. If the pitcher is attacking the strike zone, Cover will look down the third-base line to Smoot for the green light.
"You try to see a couple [of pitches] and then work from there," Cover said. "If you know he's not working around the strike zone a whole lot, you try and maybe work a couple of more pitches. And if it's not right where you want it, you try to take it. But that should be true for any batter. You don't want to be swinging at stuff to help him out."
Whatever the formula is, Cover has been able to master it and has become a legitimate force in the leadoff spot. Whether he's trying to force a free pass to first base or simply waiting for that right pitch to hit, Cover is shrinking pitchers' margins of error down from a few batters to just a few pitches.
"I'm just going up there and knowing what my responsibility is," Cover said. "Knowing how to work a count and trying my best to get on base. I know the guys behind me, they'll drive me in, so I'm trying to help them get their job done, too."