Balvanz's speed a factor for Mount Baker

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 17, 2013 

Mount Baker’s Titus Balvanz runs to second base against Friday Harbor on Thursday, May 2, at Pipeline Fields in Blaine.

It wasn't built on a plowed cornfield in Iowa. Instead, the Balvanz family took a bulldozer to clear an old cow pasture on their family land.

The home run fence might have dimensions more amenable for softball than baseball, and you're unlikely to see any ghosts of former baseball greats walking in from the outfield, but for the five boys of the Balvanz family it is their Field of Dreams.

"We're a baseball family," said Titus Balvanz, who is the middle son. "We always used to play a lot of baseball growing up, and the yard was too small, so our family decided to put in a baseball field. ... We've got a backstop and a home run fence, and during the summer we keep it mowed up real nice."

Balvanz, who said he was 9 or 10 when the family decided to build the field, has spent every chance he could over the past eight or nine years playing the game with his brothers and anybody else they could coax into coming out to the field.

The skills that Balvanz developed during those games on the family field have translated nicely for the Mount Baker baseball team during what could be called a Season of Dreams for the Mountaineers.

With Balvanz's help, Mount Baker won the Class 1A Northwest District title two weeks ago to clinch the program's first trip to the state playoffs since 2004.

Since that last appearance, the Mountaineers have fallen on some pretty lean times, and Balvanz, a senior, unfortunately got to witness some of the leanest.

"I was a JV coach his freshman year, so I know what it was like to be a part of this program when things were not so good," Mount Baker coach Quinn LeSage said. "He's seen a couple of two- or three-win seasons at Mount Baker. Last year we won eight games and fell short of the 2A district tournament. But this year he's been able to see us take another step forward and compete for a district title, and now we get a chance to play at state."

That opportunity will come on Saturday, May 18, when the Mountaineers head to Castle Rock to face Montesano (21-1) in a 10 a.m. first-round game in the regional.

Though Mount Baker (10-14) earned the No. 2 seed out of the tri-district, it will face a Bulldogs squad that was ranked No. 1 in the state all season until falling to Woodland in the semifinals of the Southwest District Tournament. The Mountaineers likely will face senior left-hander Layne Bruner, who is 8-0 with a 0.27 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 51 innings this year and has signed with Washington State.

And just in case that isn't enough, Woodland is on the other side of the Castle Rock Regional bracket.

"We know we're going to have a tough one in the first game," LeSage said. "It should be fun. As I've told the guys, to be the best you've got to beat the best - we might as well try to do it right off the bat. Baseball is a game you never know what is going to go on."

Balvanz said the biggest thing Mount Baker can do is just focus on playing their game and not worry about who they are facing.

"It can be intimidating playing someone like Montesano - good team, good record," he said. "It's on us to stay relaxed and play within ourselves and try not to do too much."

Not surprisingly, it was a similar approach that has allowed Balvanz to take a big step forward this year for Mount Baker.

LeSage said Balvanz struggled a little at the plate when he was inserted into the leadoff position for the Mountaineers last year, and he ended up dropping him to No. 9.

But this year, Balvanz has made the top of the order his home.

"Last year, I started off putting too much pressure on myself," Balvanz said. "This year I wanted to focus. Coming in, I knew it was my time to step up. I focused on staying relaxed and having fun playing baseball and not putting too much pressure on myself. Because of that, I've been able to see the ball better. I have a better approach at the plate."

That approach is certainly paying off for him and the Mountaineers.

LeSage said Balvanz came in with the goal of hitting around .300.

"He's definitely doing that - he's on base all the time," LeSage said. "He's got good bat speed, and he's developed into a very good hitter. He studies the game of baseball, and that's helped him become more patient. He's willing to take a walk. He's been very good in that leadoff role getting on base."

And that's where Balvanz can use his greatest asset - natural speed.

Though Balvanz said he hasn't been timed in a 40 recently, he has enough quickness down the base paths to be a pest anytime he reaches first - and sometimes before he even gets there.

"I love putting pressure on defenses," he said. "I feel like I have a shot to beat out a lot of infield base hits most guys wouldn't get. I just like to do whatever I can to put my team in position to score runs."

His ability to beat out a base hit at Blaine on April 22 allowed the Mountaineers to start a rally from a two-run deficit and come back to take a 4-3 win, LeSage said.

But offense is not the only place Balvanz's speed plays a role.

It also allows him to cover a lot of territory in Mount Baker's center field.

"It's funny, because he has so much speed to get into left- and right-center field, he often takes balls our left or right fielder could handle," LeSage said. "Our corner outfielders trust him, though. He does such a great job of controlling our outfield. He has this fire inside him that makes him believe he can get to every ball and the speed to go get it done. I know he can get to most balls in the gap. It's not like our left and right fielders are buying a ticket and watch him, but he is one of the best defensive outfielders in our league."

It took a lot of long, hard work for Balvanz to get there, though.

But as a one-sport athlete that focuses solely on baseball, LeSage said Balvanz is able to work on his game throughout the offseason, and that allowed him to make great strides over the past four years.

But there is a least one more stride Balvanz would like to make this year before he wraps up his Mount Baker playing career - helping the team to a postseason win.

"It's been fun being here from Day 1 and seeing the program struggle and being able to build the program back up and restore some honor to it," Balvanz said. "Making the postseason and state has been fun, and it's been rewarding considering all the hard work we've put in the past four years."

And let's not forget all the work put in on the Balvanz Field of Dreams.

Reach David Rasbach at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2286.

SATURDAY'S FIRST ROUND STATE BASEBALL GAMES

CLASS 3A

Mount Vernon Regional at Skagit Dream Field

First round: West Seattle vs. Ferndale, 1 p.m.

CLASS 2A

Bellingham Regional at Joe Martin Field

First round: Lynden vs. Lindbergh, 10 a.m.

CLASS 1A STATE TOURNAMENT

Castle Rock Regional

First round: Montesano vs. Mount Baker, 10 a.m.

Moses Lake Regional at Larson Playfield

First round: Meridian vs. Naches Valley, 1 p.m.

NOTE: Regional championship games would follow at 4 p.m. for any teams that win.

GAMECAST

Look for a live gamecast from Ferndale's games at the Mount Vernon Regional at bellinghamherald.com/sports

Reach DAVID RASBACH at david.rasbach@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2271.

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