Flashing leather and slashing hits, WKU’s Danny Hudzina having a monster season
Western Kentucky’s standout third baseman embraced new coach John Pawlowski’s idea of collective effort and role acceptance on offense. The result is an eye-opening first half.
“We want to score runs and that’s how you’re going to win games,” Hudzina said. “Yeah, you love the home runs, but knowing that we’re not the biggest power lineup out there, we have to produce runs whatever way we can. That’s how you’re going to win games for a ballclub like that. We are talented, but we’re not going to trot around the ballpark every time.”
The Hilltoppers (16-11, 5-4 Conference USA) still have a lot of baseball left, including series against the top three teams in the league standings: Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Rice. But if they hit and scrap the way they have thus far, they will give themselves a chance to contend, one year after failing to qualify for the conference tournament.
“We’ve got some guys in the program that have really bought into what we’re trying to do,” Pawlowski said.
None more than Hudzina. The senior from Palm City, Fla., is second in the nation in hits (52) and leads C-USA in batting (.448) by 50 points over Southern Miss’ Nick Dawson, after last weekend. His 29-game hitting streak ended last Saturday versus UAB, but his two-run home run in the top of the ninth inning tied Sunday’s finale, and the Hilltoppers went on to win 6-5 in 10 innings and clinch the series.
Hudzina leads the conference in total bases (70). He is second in on-base percentage (.489) and in slugging percentage (.603), despite hitting just two home runs. His batting average is 121 points higher than last season, when he hit .327 and was voted second-team all-conference.
“Danny Hudzina has been the ringleader,” Pawlowski said. “It’s good to have ringleaders. Any game where we’ve been productive offensively, you’ll see him all over the box score.”
All with a decidedly non-statistical approach.
“I’m not really a big numbers guy,” Hudzina said. “I’m a big hit-the-ball-hard-guy. That was my goal. Be a tough out. Hit the ball hard. Show that I belong and show that I can compete against anybody out there. Obviously, you’d love to have a high average, you’d love to hit a lot of home runs, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes, balls get caught; you hit balls right at guys.
“My overall goal is just to show people I can hit the ball, and that’s about it. Stay true to my own swing and not get too big. Really work on spraying the ball.”
Hudzina is the most notable beneficiary of Pawlowski’s influence, which has worked its way through the lineup. For example, designated hitter Kaleb Duckworth (.376) was batting 80 points higher than last season, and first baseman Harrison Scanlon (.290) was 56 points better, after last weekend. The Hilltoppers (.293) improved 23 from last season, and their average of 5.9 runs per game is 0.6 higher than 2015.
“I know that he really gives us confidence, even during bad times,” Hudzina said of Pawlowski. “He tells us how good we can be. He just kind of stays behind us and gives us the confidence that we need, as a team and a group of hitters. … I think he has really instilled the idea that we need to do our job, we need to move runners over, we need to get guys in. That is how we’re going to be a good team, that is how we’re going to be good in this conference.”
Pawlowski, a former head coach at Auburn and College of Charleston, spent the past two seasons as an assistant at San Diego State, which gave him an opportunity to step back and re-evaluate his approach. He believes that he returned to head coaching rejuvenated and wiser.
“College baseball now is about being able to manufacture runs in different ways,” he said. “You’re not going to boat-race people on a daily basis. You have to win games 2-1, 3-2, and you’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes to get runs across.”
And whatever it takes to benefit the team. When Pawlowski got the job last spring, he said that Hudzina volunteered to catch if the team needed him there. Hudzina was a catcher in high school who made himself into a solid third baseman in junior college and in his first season at WKU. He caught some in fall practice, but ultimately remained at third base.
“The fact that he was willing to change positions and not worry about how it affected him,” Pawlowski said, “that’s pretty special. You don’t see that every day.”
Hudzina received little professional interest after his junior year, so he simply went back to work. Baseball America tabbed him the best defensive third baseman in the conference and C-USA’s No. 4 overall prospect for 2016 in its preseason preview.
“I just wanted to come back,” he said, “and really show people that what happened wasn’t a fluke, that I really worked hard to get to this point. It humbles me a lot. I was hoping for an opportunity, and I still hope for one, eventually. I just wanted to come back and improve as much as I could and help this team become the best team it can be.”
Above and middle: To coach John Pawlowski, Danny Hudzina in the “ringleader” for Western Kentucky: “You’ll see him all over the box score.” (Courtesy WKU Athletics)