College Baseball: Catawba’s Lyerly has chance to tie The Streak
By Mike London
Craige Lyerly and his Catawba baseball teammates traveled to Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium recently to check out the Kannapolis Intimidators.
Also in the house, by chance, was Earl Lentz, a Kannapolis resident and Catawba Hall of Famer revered as “Big Earl” in his heyday in the 1950s.
Lentz, who will turn 75 in June, still prefers the sweet sound of wood meeting baseball to the pinging of metal so he watches the pros play more than the college guys.
But he follows Catawba in the paper, and he knows all about Lyerly. He probably knows Lyerly’s stats better than Lyerly knows them.
“They announced Catawba’s team was at the game, and I saw them sitting up there and thought I’d say hello,” Lentz said. “I asked which one was Lyerly and they told me he was at the concession stand. I told them, ‘Well, when he gets back, tell him I’m the guy with 33.’ “Lyerly, co-player of the year in the SAC, carries a 32-game hitting streak into today’s Southeast Regional in Aiken, S.C. As Catawba’s leadoff man, he’ll step into the batter’s box at 11 a.m. to kick off the regional
With a hit today, the East Rowan graduate will tie Lentz’s school record. It’s no run-of-the-mill record.
“Big Earl” set the mark with wood when he hit safely in his last 21 games in 1955 and his first 12 in 1956 for 33 in a row. Since then, his record has stood the test of time and a long train of outstanding hitters swinging metal in Newman Park ó a paradise for hitters.
Of course, back when Lentz was on the diamond, people didn’t worry so much about stats. They just played. Lentz didn’t realize he had a streak ó or a stack of school records ó until numbers were compiled and documented years after he’d hung up his cleats and started coaching basketball and golf at A.L. Brown.
Lentz could hit. In a two-game series with Appalachian State in 1955, he belted three homers and knocked in 12 runs. He shattered lights on distant center-field poles and once launched what had to be the longest out in Catawba history. There was no fence at Appalachian. The left fielder just ran and ran and ran until he caught a drive by Lentz that traveled almost to Blowing Rock.
Lyerly’s 2009 stats also sound like tall tales. In 51 games, he’s accumulated 101 hits to tie David Thomas’ single-season record set in 2008. It doesn’t take an accounting major ó Lyerly is one of those ó to figure out he’s getting nearly two hits per game.
The junior third baseman doesn’t just hit singles. He has 13 homers and 15 doubles. He’s scored 65 runs and is 26-for-30 on steals. He’s batting a surreal .449.
If you’re wondering, Lyerly completed his business at the concession stand in time to meet Lentz in person. After proper introductions, they chatted a bit.
“I was surprised that he’s not a very big boy,” Lentz said. “Lyerly was kinda shy, but we talked. I told him 53 years was long enough to hold any record and I’d be pulling for him.”
Lyerly isn’t bigger than life.
At 6 feet, 180 pounds, he looks average, but he’s not. He’s blessed with exceptional strength and eerie speed.
Scouts at the SAC tournament shook their stopwatches, checking for malfunctions, after Lyerly, a right-handed hitter, sped to first base in 3.5 seconds on a bunt. He got down there in 3.8 on a ball he pulled, which was even more impressive.
Lyerly blazed a 6.43 60-yard dash on Catawba’s pro scout day. That special speed makes him a potential draft pick next month.
“Hard work and good genetics,” Lyerly said.
Catawba coach Jim Gantt knew he was getting a good player when he recruited Lyerly, but the ex-Mustang has exceeded expectations.
He started as a freshman and hit .308. He hit .390 as a sophomore with 13 homers, 70 RBIs and 27 steals.
As a junior, he’s been phenomenal. He’s had four-hit games and five-hit games. He had a recent stretch of eight straight games with two or more hits.
“Nothing he does hitting, running or fielding is what you’d call pretty or even orthodox,” Gantt said. “He’s not polished, but he’s going to get even better and that high ceiling makes him very intriguing to the pros. He could hit with a whole lot of power some day.”
Lyerly isn’t the typical leadoff batter. He isn’t seeking a walk. He’s hacking.
“He’s one of those guys the ball sounds different coming off his bat, and he can hit even the balls that aren’t strikes hard,” Gantt said. “We kid him the only pitch he has trouble with is right down the middle.”
Lyerly knew he was getting on base frequently, but he wasn’t aware he had a notable streak until he saw on Catawba’s Web site he’d hit safely in 24 in a row.
“Not that I started thinking about it or changed anything I was doing,” Lyerly said. “It did put it in the back of my mind a little bit, but I still just try to line up the ball and aim for the middle.”
Lyerly, who is “Ern” to his teammates because of his allegiance to racer Dale Earnhardt Jr., hasn’t had any trouble keeping the streak alive. Since he found about it, he hasn’t needed more than three at-bats in a game to collect his first hit.
And now that he’s met Lentz, the streak means a little more. Now the streak isn’t just numbers. Now the streak has a face.
“It was neat that I got to meet the guy, and I appreciate that he’s pulling for me,” Lyerly said. “But I’ll be glad to go O-fer down there if we can win the regional.”
Catawba junior third baseman Craige Lyerly has hit safely in 32 games in a row, one shy of the school record.
He’ll lead off