Pete Hughes doesn't miss many chances to razz his best hitter, but the truth is Chad Pinder doesn't leave Hughes many openings.
Not only is Pinder, a Poquoson High graduate, leading Virginia Tech (32-16 overall entering Saturday, 10-14 Atlantic Coast Conference) with a .357 batting average, he's also pacing the team in hits with 66, total bases with 111 and he sits atop the ACC in doubles with 22 – all numbers current going into Saturday's home games against North Carolina State.
Ah-ha…doubles. Hughes, Tech's coach, pounces.
"The guys that hit a lot of doubles are the guys that aren't strong enough to hit home runs," said Hughes, whose team had won 14 of its last 18 games heading into Saturday. "That's what I tell him all the time."
That's Hughes' sense of humor coming through, but Pinder doesn't have much trouble getting it over the fence either as evidenced by his seven home runs, which were tied for second on the team. Hughes will also readily let you know Pinder is by far Tech's most improved player from last season to this season.
Pinder, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound sophomore, has transformed himself into a guy that longed as a freshman to play the infield – where he excelled at Poquoson, hitting .495 as a senior shortstop, and helping lead the Islanders to Group AA state titles in 2009 and '10 – to a trusted glove and arm as Tech's starting third baseman this season.
"Last year, I'll be the first one to admit that I came in as a freshman and I could not play the infield," said Pinder, who has 10 errors this season after spending his freshman season starting in right field and hitting .317. "I was inexperienced. I was raw. Everyone had taken hundreds and hundreds of groundballs, and I just wasn't there yet. It was like a rude awakening for me."
Pinder did the only things he knew he could do to help him get closer to playing the infield. He talked to his infield-playing teammates about playing the positions and took as many groundballs as possible. Even during practice, he'd sneak in from right field to snare a few groundballs.
Last summer, Pinder played for the Peninsula Pilots in the Coastal Plain League. He was shut down after 23 games due to right (throwing) elbow tendinitis, a condition that lingered until the fall and caused him to stay away from throwing the ball for nearly two months.
Even after the injury, he still fielded more than 100 groundballs a day last summer from second base, shortstop and third base.
"He came back a different dude," Hughes said. "I didn't think he could play in the middle of our infield last year before summer ball. He came back in the fall and I thought this kid could play shortstop for us. I still think he could eventually."
Pinder has also shown his versatility as a hitter. In the first two months of the season, he hit in the No. 3 spot in Tech's order and also spent time as the No. 2 hitter and clean-up hitter, racking up the majority of his 37 RBI.
Early last month, when first baseman/designated hitter Ronnie Shaban returned from his third hamstring injury of the season, Hughes slid Shaban into the middle of the order and pushed Pinder down to the No. 6 and No. 7 spots.
"I'm sure when he first got bumped down he thought, 'Well, I'll just go out and hit four doubles today and see how long this lasts'" said Hughes, who added he moved Pinder down to get more production in the lower half of his order. "I'm sure he wanted to prove me wrong, but in the end, he's just got blind faith in our program and our coaching staff."
Pinder continues to tinker with his approach at the plate, working to lay off pitches at his knees and below to try to induce more walks (he has just 12 this season) and cut down on strikeouts (37 this season, second-most on the team).
"I think I have a lot to learn at the dish about being more disciplined," Pinder said. "That's something that can be fixed."
This summer, he'll get to hone his skills in the most prestigious summer college baseball league of all – the Cape Cod League, where he has signed to play with the Chatham Anglers in Chatham, Mass.
"You've got to be even-keeled about it," said Pinder of the Cape Cod League. "I could go up there and have a great summer, or I could go up there and not have such a great summer. I'm just lucky to have the opportunity."