Long Beach State rides the focus and precision of shortstop Garrett Hampson to the NCAAs

Mark Whicker
LA Daily News
Posted: 06/01/16

LONG BEACH >> From his American Legion season, through his junior year at Reno High, and on into his junior summer season, Garrett Hampson got at least one hit in 78 consecutive games.

That’s not the good part.

Hampson didn’t realize he’d done that.

That’s still not the good part.

The good part is that Hampson’s parents, Chris and Marjorie, didn’t realize it either.

“That doesn’t happen these days,” said Pete Savage, the Reno coach. “The parents are tweeting, they’re posting, they’re keeping up with everything.”

Those are the tipoffs, the green flags, the stories that should come up, but might not, when Hampson’s name rises in the draft rooms of Major League Baseball.

He is the junior shortstop at Long Beach State, which opens NCAA tournament play Friday in the Miami Regional, and he has been the battery in all the clocks at Blair Field.

Hampson played 56 games this year and made three errors (two throwing, one fielding). He hit .305 and was part of a defense that worked in unison with a formidable pitching staff, led by Darren McCaughan (10-1), the Big West Pitcher of the Year.

He has a level way of talking about all this, a Jordan Spieth style of respectful confidence.

“He has the Derek Jeter approach,” said Savage, whose brother John is UCLA’s head coach. “If it’s the first day of spring training or the seventh game of the World Series, you could look at his face and you wouldn’t know the difference. “

And as college baseball moves into its biggest room, its players have to deal with the biggest elephant.

The major league draft is next Tuesday. That’s in between the regionals and the super regionals. There have been times when it lands squarely on game days, as when Phil Nevin of Cal State Fullerton was made the No. 1 pick while the Titans were en route to the finals of the 1992 College World Series.

It’s a collision of present and future, and even though the college juniors and high school seniors don’t have to make the decision until the end of July, the players feel it, as do coaches.

“The draft is a distraction all year,” said Troy Buckley, the Long Beach State coach. “There were scouts meeting with players three weeks ago and we didn’t know anything about it. Some scouts are authentic and straightforward. Some don’t really care much about what we’re doing here as a program. The players have to have discipline about it, too. For Garrett, he’s been through Team USA, all the other noise. It won’t bother him.”

Buckley doesn’t think Hampson will get very far into the third round before someone drafts him, and won’t be surprised if he doesn’t escape the second. Baseball America, the Thomas Guide of amateur baseball, disagrees. It ranks Hampson 185th among its Top 200 prospects.

“In my mind I tell myself just to keep doing what I’m doing,” Hampson said. “Don’t worry about who’s watching. They’re here for a reason, right?”

Hampson grew up about 20 steps from a Little League field and has never played anything but shortstop. He says Savage’s program has been most responsible for his polish.

“I was already a step ahead when I got to college,” he said. “In fact, we had a Long Beach State drill in high school, and when I came here I knew all about it.”

It’s a hit-and-field drill at game speed, “but without the balls and the missed swings,” Savage said. When Tom Kelly managed the Minnesota Twins, he called it “rocket fire.”

“I always think about the angles,” Hampson said. “You have to play it in front of you, and it starts with the first step. If you have dead feet, you’re going to find yourself between hops. That makes for a 50-50 situation right there. As long as we can go where you get a hop, the biggest thing is the footwork.

“I don’t know if focusing on every pitch comes natural. It’s tough to stay in the game, every single pitch. If you’re sleeping out there, the ball is going to find you. You know that.”

Buckley was going to let Hampson find baseballs from Day One.

“Unless he played himself out, he was in, and I don’t do that with many freshmen,” Buckley said.

Day One, in 2014, was against Vanderbilt, the top-ranked team in college baseball. Hampson had two singles and scored a run.

“That was the bar,” he said, smiling. “It only gets easier from here.”

It always does, when you just go play. Someone else is always keeping score.

Three facts

1. Long Beach State last went to the College World Series in 1998.

2. There were 16 former Dirtbags in the big leagues last year. No other college matched that.

3. The Dirtbags play Florida Atlantic at 10 a.m. (PDT) Friday morning to open the Miami Regional.

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