State College Spikes manager Johnny Rodriguez highlighted one at bat to provide some context to his point.
Rodriguez had been talking about Kobe Bryant to explain what his team needed to do to turn the corner on an up-an-down season. He repeatedly described the Los Angeles Lakers star as “fearless.” Then, he revisited Josh Swirchak’s at bat in the bottom of the ninth inning against Vermont in late July.
With the bases loaded and one out, Swirchak fell behind in the count and fouled off a pair of two-strike breaking balls before lining a single into left field to drive in the game-tying run.
“He wasn’t going to give in,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the moral of this.”
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It was connected to another lesson Rodriguez took from the Spikes’ extra-inning loss to the Lake Monsters that night.
“You need Kobe Bryant-type players that have no fear,” the manager said.
Rodriguez said he aims to teach his players how to play without fear, an attribute that helps teams find ways to be in position to win games and then close out victories. The Spikes have been stuck in the middle of the pack in the New York-Penn League all season, taking a 22-24 record into Saturday’s game at West Virginia. State College’s longest winning streaks and losing streaks have lasted three games. The Spikes were sitting 11/2 games back in a wild-card race that included a three-way tie for first place, with six teams within at least two games.
Through the ups and downs, Rodriguez has been impressed by more than just one clutch at bat by Swirchak. The undrafted free agent out of Division-II Wilmington (Del.) University has played 34 games and emerged as the Spikes’ regular second baseman. He was hitting .235 with a team-high four triples going into Saturday.
Swirchak felt he was “a little overlooked” coming out of high school. The Manassas, Va., native had a few Division-I offers and said he nearly committed to William and Mary after his sophomore year.
Swirchak chose to attend Frederick Community College in Maryland even though his goal had always been to play Division-I baseball.
“It worked out for the best, and I’m glad every path that I’ve taken has gotten me to this point,” Swirchak said. “But it’s just I thought I stacked up pretty well with kids that were around me that were going to big-time D-Is and had a lot more offers and I didn’t really understand why.”
He wanted to play immediately rather than possibly taking a redshirt season at a bigger program. Swirchak wanted to try to play at the Division-I level after two years at Frederick, but he visited Wilmington and felt comfortable.
Swirchak said Wilmington coach Brian August prepared him to play professional baseball. The coach played three years in the New York Yankees minor league system and led the New York-Penn League in RBIs in 1998. August taught Swirchak what to expect in pro ball and pushed him to compete every day.
Swirchak hit .383 at Wilmington in 2015 and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals after the MLB Draft.
“Every step along the way has really been a steppingstone to get me to this point,” Swirchak said. “I’ve had to work hard everywhere I’ve gone. That’s something I’ll always continue to do.”
Rodriguez has watched Swirchak live up to those words with his steady play. The manager said Swirchak is fearless, making diving attempts in the field, turning double plays and coming through with clutch hits.
“He’s a winning player,” Rodriguez said. “That’s who Swirchak is. That’s why I’m impressed by him.”
“There’s a little Kobe-ness in him,” Rodriguez added.
The manager is also a fan of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and NBA legends Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.
Swirchak’s favorite player fits alongside some of Rodriguez’s favorite athletes.
“My idol’s been (former New York Yankees shortstop) Derek Jeter my whole life,” Swirchak said. “And I just modeled my game after him and how he played.”
Intensity and confidence — part of what Rodriguez means by “Kobe-ness” — defined those legendary athletes.
Rodriguez is trying to instill those traits in his players.
“I do a ton of things with preparation for the game,” Rodriguez said. “I give myself every opportunity. I don’t give nobody an edge. And that’s my point. I’m like that. I am like Kobe. I am like Brady. But I can’t play.
“So what I do is, because this is development, I try to little by little teach them no fear.”