Michael Blanke raised his left hand within seconds of hitting the ball, seemingly knowing it was gone.
Blanke, 21, the University of Tampa junior catcher, had delivered a grand slam Monday to break open the deciding game of the NCAA South Region at his homefield, a 20-3 win over Southern Arkansas; the blast helped earn him tournament MVP honors, and lift the Spartans into the Division II Baseball Championship finals, which start today in Cary, N.C.
Count his father, Gordon, as one of many not surprised.
"He's always been the guy to get clutch hits when it's his time, ever since Little League," he said. "It was amazing."
The Spartans, who play Central Missouri at 1 p.m. in the first game of the eight-team, double-elimination draw, boast plenty of talent, with five players on the All-South Region team. Coach Joe Urso said they may break a program record for most picks in this year's amateur draft.
But Urso says, "There's not a guy in the program that puts in more time (than Blanke). This guy just works and works and works."
And grows and grows and grows. Blanke, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder, laughs when he points out that his license still says he's 5-9. Of course, a few years ago, he was, before sprouting up half a foot over a two-year span from his junior year in high school until his sophomore year at St. Petersburg College. The growth spurt was a blessing in disguise.
"I wasn't really into my body, I was very clumsy," he said. "I'm not completely coordinated now, but a lot better than I was."
Blanke had split time between catcher and third base in high school and college, but wanted to stay behind the plate, which is where Urso wanted to play him. So he would spend three hours a day over the summer with his father, Gordon, working on defensive drills and hitting. Gordon, who played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, would throw until he couldn't anymore.
"He came back from Christmas break, and said, 'Coach, look at my hands,' " Urso remembered. "They were raw, from all these swings he took." Blanke, who was born in Canada and grew up in Palm Bay on Florida's east coast, could always hit. He led the state with 70 RBIs last season, while with St. Petersburg College. Blanke ranks third on the Spartans with a .387 average and second with 65 RBIs.
But it is defensively where he has made the most improvements, and growing into his body played a role.
"I think that helps, now he's a bigger target," Gordon said. "I think it helps him being bigger behind the plate like that, his feet are quick, and his strength is his arm."
Blanke said his father "taught me how to play baseball almost like it's hockey, really aggressive." And Gordon chuckled a bit, saying "He would have made a good defenseman, with his size. It would have been good …
"But he's made for baseball."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.