SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Nathan Minnich always figured he would do things in a big way.
It’s his nature. He is big in stature and he uses it to his advantage in his way of life — as a power-hitting first baseman for Shepherd University.
“Back in Little League, I was one of the bigger kids,” Minnich said. “I’m still a bigger kid. I grew into it. I was graced to have the body of a power hitter.”
Be it grace or genetics, at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Minnich has made his size matter by hitting baseballs a long way for the Rams. The Waynesboro (Pa.) Area Senior High School graduate has become one of the most feared hitters in NCAA Division II baseball and has a stack of honors and school records to prove it.
Why? It’s hard to explain, even for Minnich.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to put into words.”
Putting it on a stat sheet hasn’t been a problem.
Minnich became Shepherd’s single-season home run leader on Tuesday by hitting his 20th of the year in the first game of a doubleheader sweep of Glenville State. He already owns the Rams’ career mark with 58 homers in his not-yet-completed four-year stint.
What makes the feat all the more astounding is that he leads Shepherd with a .508 batting average (65-for-128) in 43 games through Friday this season and has a shot at topping the Rams’ single-season mark of .487. Nearly one-third of his hits are out of the park, but he puts the ball in play.
Minnich uses brawn as his calling card, but there are brains in his hitting style, too. He also leads the Rams with 45 walks.
“I have two kinds of approaches to hitting,” Minnich said. “After being walked (45) times, I know I’m not going to get a lot to hit, so I’m looking for something to hit early. But then, I have to be willing to take walks. It’s frustrating. There were a couple of games early in the season when I got away from it and got myself out by trying to force things. I accept getting walks as a level of respect.
“You have to know your role. High-average guys try to get on base and cleanup hitters have to go up and drive in runs. The high-average guys try to place the ball in a spot in the outfield. Cleanup guys try to drive the ball into the gaps … and when we miss, we hit it over the fence.”
Minnich has earned respect with the reputation he has built.
The senior leads Shepherd in nine offensive categories while also leading the West Virginia Conference in eight of them. Besides home runs, hits, walks and batting average, Minnich tops the Rams in RBIs (61), runs scored (60) and total bases (134).
He leads Division II baseball in on-base percentage (.656), slugging percentage (1.047) and home runs per game (.47) and is in the top 10 nationally with his homers, walks and RBIs.
Minnich was the WVIAC’s 2011 player of the year and finished eighth in the Tino Martinez Division II National Player of the Year voting, an award he is vying for again this season.
Not even Minnich could have anticipated his level of success at Shepherd.
“When you go to college, you expect to hit a few home runs and want to break records,” he said “But to do it is a different story.”
Still, hitting for power has been his forte from the time he picked up a baseball bat.
“I don’t know anything different,” said Minnich in his soft-spoken, humble manner. “I remember my first home run. I think I was 8 and the pitcher was 12. I only hit one homer in my first year, then I hit eight and then 16.”
The progression continued. Minnich hit .434 with 30 homers and 109 RBIs at Waynesboro before heading to Shepherd. His time with the Rams speaks for itself, but he remained on his learning curve.
“I’ve always been level-headed. No lesson is a bad lesson, just like questions,” Minnich said. “I think the thing I learned the most has been my consistency. I hit .376 with 11 home runs as a freshman and have improved every year to hitting .500 and 20 home runs this year. I had bigger options, but I wouldn’t trade my time at Shepherd for anything.”
Minnich may not trade them, but his times at Shepherd are nearing an end. The regular season is winding down for the Rams (28-15, 20-8), and the conference tournament lies ahead next month. With luck, Shepherd could head into the Division II tournament field.
“I’m not going to cry, but I’ll be sad,” he said. “No matter where I go — no matter if my last game was in high school or in the pros — I will always try my best. It’s going to be emotional to leave. It’s been a great four years in my life, but I’m ready to move on to better things.”
That could be a shot at professional baseball. Minnich has had a number of major league teams scouting him with interest in selecting him in June’s 2012 amateur draft, but he hasn’t been able to talk to them because he is still playing.
The opportunity would be a dream come true.
“I remember one day, when we were playing tennis baseball in a big field across from my house,” Minnich said. “I got all dressed up like Ken Griffey Jr. He was my favorite player. I had my hat on backwards like the way he did. Everyone gave me a hard time, but I was ready to go.
“It’s crazy, but I may be able to do that. It’s right there.”
And fittingly, that could be the next big thing to grow into for Big Nate Minnich.