The ping of the baseball off Brian Bartlett's bat isn’t a new sound in the Swannanoa Valley. It was often heard during his years as a star player for the Owen High Warhorses.
So there was something familiar, but also different, about his hit to the opposite field that gave his team, the Montreat College Cavaliers, the win on April 2.
With that 9-8 victory over Brevard College, the Cavaliers picked up their 13th victory of the season. The win came courtesy of Bartlett's walk-off single, the freshman's biggest hit in his college career so far.
“It didn’t even feel real at first,” he said. “We came in from the field, and one of the pitchers told me it was going to come down to me and I was going to a hit a walk-off.”
It’s no stretch to believe Bartlett can deliver in those situations. He was a two-sport star during his time at Owen. He scored 1,000 points as a basketball player for the school and hit over .500 as a baseball player for the Warhorses in his senior year.
Before graduation he decided to pursue baseball at Montreat College, following in the footsteps of his father and brother.
Thirty-five games into his first college season, Bartlett couldn’t be happier with that decision.
“I miss basketball bad,” he said. “But it feels like I was meant to be here as part of this team.”
The Cavaliers are loaded with freshmen talent this season, according to second-year head coach Jason Beck.
“The other day in our lineup we had five freshmen, and I brought in a freshman pitcher,” said Beck, whose roster contains 12 first-year players. “To be honest, I can’t remember in my 20 years of coaching having more than two or three freshmen out there at once.”
Beck recruited Bartlett as a pitcher and position (or two-way) player. When Bartlett experienced tendinitis in his throwing arm early in the season, Beck found plenty of use for him all over the field.
“We’ve put him in the outfield. We’ve put him at shortstop, which is what he played in high school,” Beck said. “We’ve played him at third, we’ve played him at first. He’s been everything we thought he’d be. A pretty athletic kid that can play anywhere.”
As he demonstrated for the home fans at Newell Field in the bottom of the ninth against Brevard, Bartlett is also capable of impacting a game with his bat. The Cavaliers led the Tornados the whole way until Brevard tied the game up in the eighth inning.
Bartlett strolled to the plate looking to bring the winning run home.
“I came up with runners on first and second, and I fell behind with two strikes immediately,” he said. “I was like ‘great.’ Then (the pitcher) showed me nothing but breaking balls, and I just poked one past the first baseman. It was a slow, lopping line drive.”
It was Bartlett’s 13th RBI in 24 games this season. After the win over Brevard, he was batting .271 with 19 hits in 70 plate appearances.
Beck said the freshman is “holding his own,” offensively. His versatility as a position player makes him a valuable asset to the team, the coach said. The good news for Beck and the Cavaliers is that Bartlett has been productive despite still figuring out college pitching.
“It takes a lot to get used to, going from high school to college,” Bartlett said. “The breaking balls are so much sharper, and the fastballs got a lot more speed to them.”
Through his first 70 college at-bats Bartlett struck out 16 times, an occurrence he’d like to see less often as the season goes on. However, he’s also shown flashes of his offensive potential several times as well.
In a February series against Cincinnati Christian University, he was 7 for 10 at the plate. In the second game of the three-game series, he 3 for 4 with a double and 3 RBIs. It was one of his best offensive performances of the season.
Bartlett had a similar performance on a Friday in Kentucky against Appalachian Athletic Conference foe Union College. In the first game of a doubleheader, he drove in three RBIs on a 3 for 4 showing at the plate. The Cavaliers beat the Bulldogs 11-1.
"We thought Brian would contribute as a freshman, here and there," Beck said. "I thought he was still about a year away. We were thinking he'd pitch on varsity and play a position on junior varsity."
In that sense, the inflammation that limited Bartlett to only one appearance on the mound (Feb. 2 against Thomas University) has been a bit of a blessing, Beck said.
"We had other injuries as well, so we decided to use him at different positions on varsity. And he's really showcased his versatility," the coach said.
Bartlett said he's fortunate to play the game in an environment as supportive as the one he's experienced at Montreat.
"It's awesome here," he said. "It's energizing to be part of this team. Everyone on this team gels together so well, and that makes you look forward to getting out there and working with your teammates."
While Bartlett has done plenty of work with his bat so far this season, a return to the pitcher's mound is likely in the near future, according to his coach.
"We definitely view him as a two-way guy," Beck said. "He's shown how important he is to our offense, but we still plan on getting him back out there on the mound. He's earned the right to get a shot at becoming a two-way player for us."