North Xtra: Shaler grad the man in the middle at Penn

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University of Pennsylvania baseball coach John Yurkow knows where to start when putting together a solid defense.

"To have a good team you have to have guys in the middle who know what they're doing," he said. "It's not just about fielding the ball, they have to know the mental side of the game, what to expect."

Yurkow's solid defense helped the Quakers to a 24-17 finish this season, 15-5 in the Ivy League and tied with Columbia for first place in the Gehrig Division. Penn and Columbia squared off in a one-game playoff to decide the division's representative in the Ivy League championship series but the Quakers came up short, 4-0.

The Quakers' 15 league victories were the most since the 1989 season and the 24 overall victories were the seventh most in program history.

Leading the way in anchoring that middle defense was Shaler Area graduate Ryan Mincher, a sophomore shortstop.

A 6-foot-1, 185-pounder who bats and throws right-handed, Mincher was a first-team All-Ivy League selection who batted .271 (36 for 133) from the fifth or sixth spot in the lineup and was third on the team in on-base percentage (.376), RBIs (24) and tied for third in doubles (10) and home runs (4).

"He really made a big jump offensively this year," Yurkow said. "He has a good eye at the plate, his walk-to-strikeout ratio is excellent, probably the best on the team. He has some pop, too. He has some doubles and home runs.

"He's a guy with runners in scoring position, he's the guy you want up. He's a tough kid who battles at the plate. He's going to put the ball in play with two strikes. That's why he has some big RBIs for us this year."

Against Dartmouth on April 6, Mincher went 3 for 4 with two RBIs. He drove in three runs against Harvard April 5 and went 3 for 4 with two doubles and a career-high four RBIs against Cornell April 13.

A statistic Mincher leads the Quakers in is walks. He finished the season with 21, a stat that hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates.

"I'm pretty selective," Mincher said. "I know what type of pitches I can put good swings on. I know where my holes are. I don't try to give the pitchers too much. A lot of pitchers try to nibble at the corners. I try to lay off that. I usually don't swing at curveballs early in the count.

"A lot of guys on the team joke around and say I'm always batting 3-2 counts, but I feel comfortable hitting like that. If I have to take a couple strikes here and there to work the count and make the pitcher work, I'm OK doing that."

Not only has Mincher heard about his constantly working the pitcher deep into counts from his teammates, but they were also nice enough to remind this Shaler Township resident that he failed to get a home run his freshman year.

"It was rough last year," he said. "A lot of guys were saying stuff to me in practice. It felt great to finally get one. They told me it was about time I hit one."

Mincher wasted little time hitting his first collegiate home run this season when he went long against Dallas Baptist in the second game of the season, a 19-2 loss. He went on to start all 41 games for the Quakers, one of only four on the roster to do so, after starting 38 of 42 last season.

"I think it has a lot to do with the way we handle our stretching in the offseason and continuing into the season," Mincher said. "We stretch a lot and put a lot of stress on being healthy. Across the board we really haven't had a lot of guys out with injuries. That's definitely helped us."

Mincher, a political science major with a concentration in international relations, needed a little help deciding on his sport of choice for his college career. A three-sport standout at Shaler, he was quarterback on the football team, guard on the basketball team and shortstop in baseball.

"It was between football and baseball going into my junior year. I kind of knew I wasn't going to be playing basketball in college," he said.

"It was tough. After my junior year of football, I had a pretty good season, I started getting some interest. After my junior year of baseball I started getting contacted by some Ivy League schools so I kind of knew it would be baseball."

And he'll be sticking with baseball closer to home this summer. Last year he played for the Alexandria (Va.) Aces in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League where he batted .315 and made the league all-star team.

"I'm playing in the [Greater Pittsburgh Federation League] just to get some reps, nothing too serious," he said. "I want to focus more on working out and working on sprints and things like that.

"I'm going to focus on getting bigger and stronger and getting my arm strength up and faster. I want to work on bettering my weaknesses and becoming an all-around better player."

It's something Yurkow is looking forward to.

"Ryan's intangibles are what make him a great player. His knack for knowing where to play, when to put a pickoff on, move guys around defensively. There are things that are hard to coach. For him to have that as a freshman and sophomore already, he has a really bright future ahead of him."

Rick Davis: or 412-263-3789.

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