Bryce is nice fit for the UB Bulls

*Eric Bryce (Regina, Sask.) spent his first three years of college ball on the mound before spending the summer of 2010 in Buffalo and presto he became a slugger. Letters of Intent

2011 Canadians in College

2011 Canadians in the Minors

AMHERST, NY -- He sits in a restaurant just off the University of Buffalo campus poking at a cheese burger and fries on his plate.

Erie Bryce sits and wonders.

A grand total of eight at-bats in 2008 while playing for the Monterey Peninsula College Lobos.

“I was recruited as a pitcher and a position player,” Bryce explained. “So we’re taking infield the first day. I’m third in line, a coach hits the first ground ball to me, I throw over to first. The coach yells ‘Bryce! Over with the pitchers!’ That was it for me as a position player.”

One plate appearance in the spring of 2009 at Monterey.

Zero at-bats after transferring to the UB Buffalo Bulls for the spring of 2010.

And this spring?

After a grand total of less than 10 at-bats his first three years of college ball?

Would he remember which end of the bat to use?

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Bryce (Regina, Sask.) has hit seven homers, including five in a four-game stretch during five days in March:

_ Two homers over North Carolina Central Eagles in a 19-7 win at Durham Athletic Park in Durham, N.C. Bryce hit a two-run homer to right centre in the sixth, chasing the Eagles’ pitcher from the game. He hit another two-run homer in the ninth. Alex Baldock (Ottawa, Ont.) also homered twice.

_ A two-run homer in the fifth inning and a double against NCC as the Bulls won 11-6.

_ Two more homers as Bryce went deep to put the Bulls up 5-1 in the sixth and a two-run homer in the eighth in a 9-2 win. LHP Josh Edwards (Rocky Rapids, Alta.) earned his first win thanks to working seven innings and allowing only six hits and one unearned run. Edwards struck out eight, the most by a Bulls pitcher to date.

_ And after the Bulls had a day off, Bryce hit a two-run, homer in the sixth inning as Buffalo beat the St. Bonaventure Bonnies 7-1.

Bryce earned MAC East Player of the Week honours hitting five home runs among his seven total hits in 12 at-bats, driving in 10 runs and scoring seven times himself.

So, is Bryce ready to sing Toby Kieth’s How Do You Like Me Now?

Naw, probably not a good idea what with all that talk Keith trashing Canadians for not being involved in Iraq at a concert in Minot, N.D. However, Jeff Dedekker of the Regina The Leader-Post, was on top of the story as always.

Now, that we have settled that burning issue, we still couldn’t help but wonder about Bryce ... what if? What if Bryce had been swinging from the heels all four years rather than initially trying to be a dual player and then switching to strictly pitching?

“I regret not taking a red-shirt year,” Bryce said. “It would have enabled me to focus on baseball.

“I try to be like Matt Stairs (Fredericton, NB). Swing are hard as you can every single time ... I try to maintain the same single swing every time.”

He spent last summer in Buffalo playing on a municipal league team, the Swingers, coached by Justin Hanna. That helped get Bryce into the batter’s box. Bulls’ assistant coach and recruiting co-ordinator Jim Koerner arranged for Bryce to be on friend’s team ... so he could log some innings on the mound.

“I was asking about Eric, how he was pitching,” said Koerner. “The answer was he wasn’t throwing much, but he could really hit and that we should look at him as a hitter.

“When fall ball came around Eric approached me about the possibility of hitting. Based on what I’d heard, I was all for it, but we still had some doubts.”

Slowly and surely the doubts were erased as Bryce arrived early every day to work on his mechanics. Koerner described Bryce’s work ethic as “tremendous,” not only on the field but also in the weight room.

“First time he hit, I thought he was OK, but he some holes in his swing,” said Koerner. “He was raw, with pop, nothing I haven’t seen before. He got some AB’s in our fall intra-squad games and showed potential.”

As the leaves fell around the UB campus, Bryce progressed to the point where he was “a LOT better.”

A stomach tear two weeks before the Bulls spring trip cut his time.

“He now hits the ball harder than anyone on the team and as hard, if not harder than anyone I’ve coached and I’ve had close to a dozen hitters go on to pro ball,” said Koerner.

That covers some ground as Koerner has coached since 2001, He was at Medaille College (2001-03), Monmouth University (2004), Marshall University (2006) and then he came to UB.

“Eric has developed some very impressive strength, is very coachable and has a GREAT sense of humor,” Kroener said. “The guys on the team love him, he’s a good person, who deserves all the success he can get.”

This season, Bryce is hitting .278 in 25 games making 22 starts. He has four doubles, seven homers and 17 RBIs, thanks to all those lost balls he hit in the Carolinas. He has a .978 OPS.

“He went off in NC because he was prepared,” Koerner said. “Once Eric straightened out his mechanics it came down to repetition. He worked very hard to be ready for his opportunity and he capitalized on it. He’s had very good ABs and handles the strike zone well.

“He was locked in that weekend. Going into Sunday I don’t think anyone should have, or did, expect him to do what he did. I have never seen anything like it before and logically speaking you wouldn’t expect anyone to have his kind of success, in such a short amount of time, even with the hard work.”

As for the rest of the Canuck contingent infielder Baldock is among team leaders with a .351 average in 35 games with 13 doubles, a triple, three homers, 18 RBIs and a .987 OPS.

On the mound, Edwards is 1-7 with a 7.45 ERA in 10 games, making nine starts. He has walked 22 and struck out 36 in 46 1/3 innings and Jesse Reinstein (Thornhill, Ont.) is 0-1 in seven games with a 7.00 ERA, walking seven and striking out eight in nine innings.

Ryan Tulloch (Regina, Sask.) is hitting .083 in six games, Thomas Richards (Whitby, Ont.) has an .053 average in 11 games with an RBI.

Chris Robinson (Uxbridge, Ont.) is a red shirt this season

Brad Cochrane (Burlington Ont.) also serves as coach after two years with the Bulls. He set program record for doubles in a season in 2010, with 21, driving in 49 runs, second most in program history for a single season. In his senior season, he started in 51 games, splitting time at designated hitter, catcher, second base and third base

Prior to Buffalo, Cochrane caught two years at Lon Morris College.

A visit to see Mitch McDonald (Regina, Sask.) at Monterey in the spring of 2007 which lasted a couple of weeks, included workouts with the team led to coach Daniel Phillips giving Bryce a scholarship.

McDonald, the pioneer, was a 46th round draft pick of the Florida Marlins in 2006.

In the fall of 2007, Brady Rak (West Vancouver, BC), Jordan Rawlyk (Saskatoon, Sask.), J.P. Willner (Regina, Sask.), Scott Wolbaum (Regina, Sask.) and Bryce arrive.

At Monterey, Bryce pitched in 11 games as a freshman with a 1-0 mark and a 10.07 ERA, walking six and striking out eight in 19 2/3 innings.

The next spring he worked in 16 games, making six starts. He was 6-4 with a 2.66 ERA, walking 25 and fanning 31 in 50 2/3 innings.

“I recruited him out of junior college to pitch,” said Koerner. “He had a very good sophomore year at his JUCO. We felt that he would be able to really solidify our bullpen.

“When he got here, he started off pitching well in the fall, but he had command issues in the spring. We did not even know he could hit and had a very senior laden team (eight of nine guys in the lineup were seniors). Even if we had known it may have been tough for him to break through.”

At Buffalo in 2010, Bruce was 1-0 with a 4.38 ERA, walking 12 and striking out five in 12 1/3 innings.

“Last year I decided to throw side arm to mix things up a little,” Bryce said. “When I needed a fastball on the outside corner, it wasn’t there for me.”

The chance to go to UB came up late when Bryce was considering transferring to North Dakota State, Upper Iowa or Jamestown College.

When the UB deal was done, he jumped into the car, along with his father, Pat, a heavy duty mechanic, and made the 32-hour drive from the prairies to Buffalo.

So how does a Saskatchewan boyo compare the two extremes of playing college ball in the U.S.?

California, and not just California, but a five-iron from Pebble Beach, to Western New York?

“The weather in Monterey is ideal, we practised outdoors all year round,” Bryce said. “Here is more like home. I like the people a lot better.

“I couldn’t be asking for more and going to a good school.”

UB is an excellent academic school as an athletic school, its Hall of Fame containing the likes of Don Gilbert, coach of the undefeated, untied University of Ottawa 1975 College Bowl champs; former Montreal Expo Joe Hesketh, hoops star Jumpin’ Jimmy Horne, former hoops star and New York Yankees scout Bob Miske, Gerald Philbin who starred with the New York Jets Super Bowl team and Buffalo Bisons owner Bob Rich to mention a few.

UB is Mom Pamela a secretary with Saskatchewan Health and pa should be proud of their son who will graduate with a degree in geology. He’s taking a full course load and hopes to put his studies of rocks and minerals to use with a job in mining.

At home, Bryce went to instructor Morgan Reiter’s mid-week workouts, played for the Regina Blue Jays, White Sox and Rangers. Coach Barry Erickson of the White Sox tutored Bryce on the hitting aspects, while with the Rangers Mark Dolan helped him learn about playing middle infield. Bryce went to the Baseball Canada Cup and national midget championships. Former No. 1 pick Phillippe Aumont (Gatineau) was with the Quebec team.

Often classmates mangle about his where he’s from. The best? Or should it be the worst, “Sask-ka-cha-toon,” a combination of Saskatchewan and Saskatoon.

Bryce followed the World Juniors in Buffalo during the holidays, rooting for the red and white, being teased and teasing American teammates.

“I liked the Olympics better,” he said with a dry smile.

Bryce hopes to maybe attend an independent league tryout this summer.

“I’d like to get out of debt and some how stay in baseball,” Bryce said.

Looking back, Koerner says it wasn’t a case Bryce could pitch.

“I recruited him as such, he had success at his JUCO,” he said. “Let’s say for whatever reason it wasn’t going to work at this level. Now, he is a legitimate college hitter with some BIG power potential. I wish I had another year to work with him as a hitter because he is only going to get better as he gets more experience.

“If he was hitting the last three years I can only imagine where he would be now. He was meant to hit and I would doubt that I will ever see something like this again.”

Bryce, a square peg in a round hole for three seasons, fits nicely into the batter’s box.

A perfect fit.

His burger and fries finished, a man with a future shakes hands and says he’s off to go fishing.