For the second-straight year, Oklahoma State found a gem in the Arizona desert.
A year ago, it was Matt Kroon. As a newcomer in Stillwater, he locked down the shortstop position while batting .300 with 11 home runs.
One year removed from Central Arizona College – a community college in Coolidge, Arizona, Kroon was drafted in the 18th Round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies.
It marked the third time he’d been drafted and second time by the Phillies organization. He moved up from the 38th Round out of high school to the 30th Round out of Central Arizona to where he eventually was taken last year.
Through Kroon, his success in Stillwater and his enjoyment of his one year on campus, OSU landed another infielder from Central Arizona who has also blossomed into an everyday starter who quietly provides a necessary spark plug to a squad headed to its first NCAA Super Regional in three years.
“(Kroon) is a bit jealous, but he’s living his dream out, so I’m happy for him,” OSU junior Alix Garcia joked about making a Super Regional, which is something Kroon and the Cowboys didn’t do last year.
Joking aside, Garcia’s decision to come to OSU after two years at Central Arizona was in large part because of Kroon. Garcia said through Kroon, he was able to learn more about the OSU baseball program and the culture built by coach Josh Holliday and his staff. He said how the Cowboys play baseball was his biggest reason for coming to Stillwater this year.
“Right when (assistant coach) Jimmy V (Vilade) started texting me a little bit, I called Kroon and asked about coaches, how they were, how the field was and how the atmosphere was basically to see if it was a good place to play,” Garcia said.
“He’s a really good player and he said they’ll take care of me here. They’ll do anything in their power to help me succeed and that’s really what it’s all about.”
Garcia learned quickly Kroon was correct.
“You could tell right away guys were here to play baseball and they wanted you to play the best baseball you could,” Garcia said. “When I first got here, you could easily see the culture Kroon was talking about and they really just welcomed me with open arms.”
For the Othello, Washington, native, Oklahoma was a bit of a climate change. The humidity took some adjusting to, but he’s adapted to it.
The same could be said for his production at an NCAA Div. I program.
Unlike Kroon, who made an immediate impact in the field and at the plate for the Cowboys, Garcia’s impact didn’t come right away. It took a while for him to find a spot in the lineup every day.
Through the first 19 games of the season, Garcia played in only seven. He started in only four of those seven contests – recording five hits in 19 at-bats and three of those came in a single game against Wright State.
Senior Christian Funk was starting at first base, with Max Hewitt at shortstop and Andrew Navigato at third base in many of the early season games as the OSU staff tried to find its lineup. Then Big 12 Conference play started March 22 with Kansas State coming to town.
“Through some opportunities, I got some hits in some big moments that’s really helped me get into the every day lineup,” Garcia said.
Garcia didn’t start the series opener against Kansas State, but went 0 for 1 at the plate. His batting average had dipped to .250.
He started the next two games at first base and went 3 of 6 at the plate. His average jumped to .308 in two games.
Garcia found himself a home in the Cowboy’s lineup. He’s started every contest since the second game against KSU.
His batting averaged climbed to .350 during mid-April before eventually dipping below .300 in early May. It’s never dropped below .289 and it’s at .301 heading into this weekend’s Super Regional in Lubbock, Texas.
“I think I’ve hit pretty good,” Garcia said. “I feel like I have some at-bats that I’ve just given away where you just strike yourself out, but I think I’m doing pretty good.”
In the field, Garcia has become a formidable first baseman. He’s recorded only five errors – fewest of the starting infielders.
It took until April 5 for him to commit his first error, and he’s had only one since April 27 at Texas Tech. During the past several weeks, he’s dug countless throws out of the dirt and recorded numerous putouts to help the Cowboys win the Big 12 Tournament and their NCAA Regional.
“He’s elevated his game in every aspect,” Vilade said. “His footwork has been great. His skill to pick a ball in the dirt has been really good and I think a lot of his decision making has really improved. As any infielder, before you catch the ball, you have to make decisions on what you’re going to do and it’s come a little more natural to him. Earlier in the fall, we had a lot of work and ups and downs with him transitioning and getting new information. He’s done a really good job and he’s made the rest of the infield better.
“He’s going to have a big impact in every game he plays. … He’s going to find ways to contribute and he’s going to find ways to help the team win, but he’s a guy who comes out here and his focus is the team and his job. He’s not worried about a lot of stuff on the outside. I think that just shows the maturity that he has. For a kid who came here as a walk-on, we’re proud of him. He’s playing like a veteran.”
Holliday agreed, saying Garcia has developed into a steady player at first base while also producing in the eight-hole of the batting order.
“He’s just more sure handed at first base,” Holliday said. “He’s more comfortable and more confident with his decision making. He’s improved his footwork a lot. Coach Vilade has worked a lot with him tirelessly to get him to where the confidence on defense matches the confidence on offense. It’s been a great thing for our team, because obviously on the offensive side, he’s really done a nice job. But he’s also stabilized our lineup. I’m very proud of him.”