WINCHESTER -- When Tristan Baker heard his name mentioned to teammate Luke Nussman, the Shenandoah University senior second baseman moved to step out of the press box at Bridgeforth Field so that Nussman could speak freely about his fellow Hornet.
Nussman stopped Baker as he reached the door, saying with a laugh that Baker could stay within earshot while he explained the impact the latter has had on the baseball program at SU. Nussman, Shenandoah’s first baseman, began by proclaiming that Baker steals every pop fly that comes his way on the right side of the infield, feigning annoyance that Baker had done such a deed only a short time ago during SU’s win over Mount Aloysius on Thursday.
Nussman’s tone then turned serious.
“He’s unbelievable. He’s really been the rock to hold this team together for the past four years,” Nussman said of Baker, a four-year starter. “He’s one of my best friends. We room together on the road. He’s unbelievable. He’ll go down in the record books here and he’s gonna be one that people at this university talk about for a long, long time.”
Baker’s college career screams consistency.
The senior from Williamsport, Maryland, has never missed a game at Shenandoah, and his 168 career starts are four shy of the school’s all-time record. Baker is already the Hornets’ all-time leader in career at-bats (672), and he’ll graduate among the top five in career hits and runs scored.
In his first three seasons from 2016 to 2018, Baker posted batting averages of .340, .329 and .351. He collected 65, 69 and 65 hits in those three seasons, scored 59, 54 and 51 runs and tallied at least 24 RBIs each year. Baker has struck out only 48 times in 812 career plate appearances, and his 96 career walks are already nine more than any other Hornet.
In the field, Baker has a career .976 fielding percentage, and he’s earned a spot on the All-Old Dominion Athletic Conference team in each of his first three seasons, landing on the second team the past two years and on the third team as a freshman in 2016.
Nussman, a fellow senior, said it’s difficult to do what Baker has done for the last three-plus years.
“Oh yeah, especially in one of the top conferences in Division III,” Nussman said. “Year in, year out, game in, game out, he produces. He goes to work the right way. He comes to the field, produces, plays his butt off at second. He’s probably the best second baseman in Division III. Honestly he really shouldn’t be in Division III. I think he should be somewhere better.”
Baker, who played high school ball at Williamsport and spent a postgrad year at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, was first pointed in Shenandoah’s direction when a former high school teammate, Wyatt Scriever, and a former American Legion teammate, Ryan Kinter, joined the Hornets in the two years prior to Baker arriving at SU.
Baker, who wanted to go somewhere with a small-school feel, recalled attending a Shenandoah game before he’d made his college decision. The Hornets put up a handful of runs in the first inning, he said, and the energy in the dugout made him think “wow, this is something that I would want to be a part of.”
Baker stepped right in as Shenandoah’s starting second baseman in 2016 and batted .340 with 26 RBIs as a freshman. The Hornets won the third of four straight ODAC regular-season titles that year, and Baker was named to the all-tournament team in the NCAA Division III South Regional.
“It was definitely an experience to make me feel confident, make me feel like this is a place where I can play and have success for all four years,” Baker said.
Baker’s been in the starting lineup every day since, his consistency helping fuel a Shenandoah run that has included two ODAC regular-season titles, a No. 1 national ranking in 2017 and a 2018 conference tournament title over the past three seasons.
“First would probably be the coaching staff we have here keeping me on track,” Baker said of the key to his consistency. “They’ll make sure to get on me if they see something that they don’t like. So trusting them and what they have to say. If I get in a little slump or something they’ll have these little technical things to help me find my groove again. And just maintaining good work ethic, not skipping any practices or anything.”
The downside to posting such steady numbers is that any prolonged slump at the plate can make that season’s statistics look out of the ordinary. Shenandoah, a team accustomed to peak offensive production, is experiencing that problem as a unit in 2019, with many of the Hornets’ numbers down from years past.
Baker is one of several Hornets experiencing a dip at an individual level this spring. Through 23 games, he’s batting .267 (23-for-86) with 15 RBIs and 19 runs scored, though he has hit the first two home runs of his college career this season.
The senior expressed confidence that at the end of the season, when the ODAC tournament arrives, he’ll have “everything right and we’ll be ready to roll,” but head coach Kevin Anderson said Baker is “fighting himself a little bit” at the plate as SU delves into the second half of its schedule.
“He’s not having the year that he’s had in the past and a lot of that is mental carrying over to physical because he’s trying too hard,” Anderson said after last Thursday’s win over Mount Aloysius. “It’s easy as the third party, but when he stays behind the baseball and thinks right-center, he’s a phenomenal hitter. But he is just a lunchpail-type baseball player. He turns the double play well. … He has built himself into a gap-type power hitter by countless hours in the weight room, proper nutrition. He does everything asked of him.”
Baker’s struggles at the plate this spring haven’t dampened his defensive prowess. He’s committed just two errors in 93 total chances in 2019, and his .978 fielding percentage this season would be the second-highest of his career.
In last week’s 4-0 win over Mount Aloysius, during which Baker went 0-for-4 at the plate, he made a spectacular sliding grab in foul territory along the right-field line in the eighth inning, one Anderson called a “Major League play.”
“Fielding’s one of those things where you feel like you shouldn’t make mistakes out there,” Baker said. “It’s always been something I pride myself with, especially if I’m not having great success at the plate at that time, I can always go out in the field and make a play to change the game in that aspect. So yeah, it’s something that’s kind of like it keeps my mind off of just swinging, you know. I’ll always have the field to come out there and kind of get back in the game.”
Shenandoah senior shortstop Robbie Marcelle, Baker’s partner on many of his 105 career double plays, said his teammate’s work ethic -- in the classroom (Baker’s a Dean’s List student), in the weight room and on the field -- stands out most. Nussman said something similar of his co-captain, noting that Baker’s “professional mannerisms” at the ballpark catch the eye of teammates.
Anderson, in a word, described Baker as “class.”
“He’s our captain. He’s our leader -- that’s on the field and off the field. And again, one word: class. This sounds corny, but he’s the type of guy that you hope your daughter meets,” Anderson said. “I could sit here and talk about him for hours because he is just a first-class young man.
“Your best leadership is by example,” he added. “A lot of people lead by voice. He leads by actions and people follow him, they look to him. And when he does say something, because he’s a very quiet young man, when he says something, it's for a purpose and people listen.”