PULLMAN – Even Derek Jones didn’t see this coming.
Not this early, anyway.
The Washington State senior outfielder isn’t necessarily surprised that he broke the school’s career home run record, hitting his 41st career homer – a grand slam – in WSU’s 10-0 win over Portland on Tuesday to surpass Jeff Hooper’s 25-year-old mark.
No, the unexpected part is that the record is already behind him with 26 games still left on the schedule. He leads Jones leading the Pac-12 with nine home runs through 29 games.
“I would have been happy if I had nine home runs all of this year, to tell you the truth,” Jones said Wednesday at Bailey-Brayton Field, where the school will honor him prior to today Friday’s series opener against Utah (8-23, 4-8 Pac-12)
Part of the reason for that belief, he said, is the bat standards imposed by the NCAA prior to last season. Jones batted .275 and hit eight home runs last year after hitting 12 in each of his first two seasons, his power numbers decreasing as he made the adjustment from an aluminum bat to the new composite bats that contain far less pop than before.
But Jones seems to have made the adjustment just fine this season. Either that, or he’s simply that much better of a hitter. He’s also third in the Pac-12 with a .402 batting average.
The home run chase never really wore on him, Jones said, partially because he started the season so hot and needed just two games to break the mark after tying it.
“If it went on for like two weeks, it might have started to become an issue, and I would have started pressing trying to hit homers and it might have screwed me up a little bit,” Jones said. “But that wasn’t the case, and so I’m proud of myself for not really letting it get to me and taking care of business, I guess.”
That’s what he’s done all season, putting up the kind of numbers he hoped for when he decided to return for his senior season after the Baltimore Orioles selected him in the 13th round of the MLB draft last June.
There isn’t one specific reason why he decided not to sign with Baltimore, Jones said. Part of it was a sense of disappointment over how his junior season ended, both for himself and for the Cougars (16-13, 3-5).
“I didn’t think I was quite ready for pro ball and to advance my game there yet, so I wanted to come back and prove to everyone what I could do and maximize my potential and go out with a lot of confidence and no regrets, really,” Jones said. “Have a degree, one more year in Pullman. Nobody can really second-guess that.”
Jones said opposing pitchers have treated him essentially the same this season as in the past – lots of off-speed stuff on the outside part of the plate – and that the key for him is to focus on hitting those pitches for average and not just for power.
“You don’t necessarily have to hit everything out for power, but when you are making good contact, hitting line drives everywhere then the coaching staff and the pitcher is like, ‘Well, this guy has kind of hit everything,” Jones said.
“So then they start to kind of nibble away and you’ve got to become patient at the plate and get your walks.
“It’s an ongoing battle of kind of cat-and-mouse a little bit, but baseball’s an adjustment kind of game. I feel like I’m adjusting pretty well to what guys are throwing at me.”
As for the record-breaker? It came on a change-up that missed over the middle of the plate. One of his teammates tracked down the ball for him.
“I don’t really care too much for home run balls,” Jones said. “But obviously, that one’s a little special to me, and I’m going to hold onto it for a while.”