07/03/2010 – Daily News Record
By Marcus Helton Daily News Record
HARRISONBURG – JJ Loker never played in the outfield during his four-year varsity baseball career at Spotswood High School, instead divvying up his time between shortstop, third base and the pitcher’s mound.
During his freshman season at the University of South Carolina-Aiken this spring, though, he found that the quickest path to playing time required a shift to the outer recesses of the field.
“It’s a lot harder to pay attention out there,” Loker joked recently, “but it’s not too bad. I just kind of got pushed into the role when one day we were putting conditioner on the infield, so [coach Kenny Thomas] told everybody to go out into the outfield. I was in right field and I was out there just messing around and making some catches, and then after practice he told me he wanted me to play outfield.”
Working primarily as a right fielder, Loker started 34 of 42 games for the Division II Pacers. He hit .348 (46-of-132) with two home runs, two triples and 25 RBIs while stealing four bases and posted a fielding percentage of .929, with five errors and 13 assists.
“I mean, it was a lot different, especially when your first college game’s in the outfield and you’ve never really played in the outfield before,” he said. “I was a little nervous at first, but after a while you get the hang of it; there’s not too much to it.”
This summer, though, Loker is an infielder again. The 2009 SHS graduate has become a regular for the Valley Baseball League’s Harrisonburg Turks – mainly at third base – and had started 16 of the 17 games he’d appeared in.
While his numbers aren’t gaudy – he’s hitting just above the Mendoza Line at .210 (13-for-62) with two doubles and four RBIs – it’s not like he’s been overmatched.
“He’s hit line drives just, everywhere, and it just seems like every time he hits the ball, it’s right at somebody,” Turks manager Bob Wease said. “But overlook his batting average, because he’s a lot better than what he’s showing, as far as statistics go.”
Loker has also walked five times, and is a perfect 3-for-3 in stolen-base attempts. Defensively, he has five errors and 32 assists in 46 chances – good for a fielding percentage of .891.
“I mean, it’s been good,” he said of his inaugural Valley League campaign. “It’s fun, and I love to play. It’s definitely been challenging and I’ve struggled a little bit, but it’s one of those things that’s just a learning process. You’re facing some of the best players you’ve ever played against, you know, so you’re not typically going to come in and do great. But it’s been fun, it’s been exciting.”
As the lone local player on the Harrisonburg roster, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Loker has become the team’s default information center, often asked to recommend restaurants – and other diversions.
“Sometimes they ask me what all there is to do around here and stuff, and all of that,” he said. “They try to get me to introduce them to some girls. I try to help out as best I can.”
Being a local player comes with added pressure to perform, as well, said Wease.
“Everybody knows them,” Wease said, “and of course we have had local players where it didn’t quite matchup, and that creates an awkward situation because you always like to play local kids, because they have family and they have friends. But we’ve had a couple before that just couldn’t quite cut it.”
Loker, though, doesn’t appear to be in that group.
“With me, the best ballplayer plays,” Wease said. “I don’t care where they come from. It makes no difference to me. I think he’s done a great job. He’s played third base for us, he’s DH’ed some, but I couldn’t be any happier with him.”