COLUMBIA — Rock Bridge shortstop Zach Kurzejeski and second baseman Nick Little glance at each other well before the pitch is thrown.
With a Boonville runner leading off second base, Kurzejeski wants Little to move away from the base to tempt the runner to move away from the bag. If he gets too far off, Rock Bridge’s catcher can throw to second and pick him off.
When Kurzejeski’s mouth is open, it means Little is going to cover the base. And when Little’s mouth is open, Kurzejeski covers the bag.
This time, Little signals by opening his mouth, and then he slides back to his position. After the pitch, Kurzejeski moves behind the runner to second base and receives the catcher’s throw. The runner is safe, but the play was executed perfectly.
For Kurzejeski and Little, plays like this one, during Rock Bridge’s 3-1 win against Boonville on Saturday, are routine. Shortstops and second basemen often have close relationships that help them communicate on the field, but Rock Bridge’s double play combo is something special.
Little and Kurzejeski have developed a strong rapport that they don’t like to tamper with.
“In practice, we always (take infield) together,” Little, a senior, said. “We have like four second basemen and four shortstops, but we always just have to go together. We’ll kick somebody out and be like, ‘No, I’m going with him.’”
Last season, Little played second base next to shortstop Eric Clark. But when Clark graduated, Little and Kurzejeski knew there was a good chance they would be partnering together this year. Over the summer, they started to hang out with each other more.
“He’d come over in the morning, and we’d just lay on the couch and just be lazy and just relax until the game that afternoon,” Little said.
This season, they transferred their relationship onto the field and took charge of the team.
“They’re the two best leaders on the team, which is where you want that because it’s right up the middle,” Bruins coach Justin Towe said. “They’re definitely going to be at the front of the line leading stretches and running, and those are the ones you’re going to hear talking.”
Towe said he doesn’t know if Rock Bridge has ever had a better shortstop-second baseman pairing. But as well as they work together, Kurzejeski and Little are different in many ways.
Little is slim and wears his pants down to his cleats. His pants look a little baggy because of his skinny legs. Little hits second in the lineup and doesn’t have much power, but, through 20 games, he leads the Bruins in hits and walks.
Kurzejeski is tall, solidly built, and fills out his uniform. He hikes up his pants, showing long green socks with three yellow stripes. Kurzejeski hits third and doesn’t walk often, but he leads Rock Bridge in RBIs and home runs.
Little takes pride in his defense more than anything else. Towe said Little might be the best defensive second baseman in the state. While Kurzejeski is dependable in the field, Little said Kurzejeski cares about hitting more than any other facet of the game.
When Kurzejeski strikes out or makes an error, he shows his frustration, unlike Little.
“He just doesn’t seem to show a lot of emotion out there,” Kurzejeski, a junior, said about Little. “Just really kind of even keel and really plays hard. He keeps everything inside, doesn’t get mad or too excited.”
During stretches and warmups, Little likes to be serious and focused, while Kurzejeski is a joker, keeping the team loose.
“He never really takes anything seriously,” Little said about Kurzejeski, lightheartedly. “He jokes around about everything, except when he’s on the field.”
The strength of their relationship is clear when they make fun of each other knowing the other won’t be offended. Little pokes fun at Kurzejeski’s high socks.
“I always get on him for wearing those pants up,” Little said, laughing. “He’s been doing it a lot lately. I don’t know what it is. I messed with him the other day, I was like, ‘Man, you’re trying to be just like Alex Rodriguez, aren’t you? Wearing those pants up.’ And then last year he had the same exact cleats as Alex Rodriguez. I was like, ‘Man Zach, come on. You’re your own person.’”
Towe thinks highly of Kurzejeski and Little both as players and people. Before heading to Maryville University in St. Louis to play baseball and study sports management, Little will babysit Towe’s kids in the summer.
“That tells you how much I think of him,” Towe said. “I wouldn’t let just anyone come to my house and watch after my two boys.”
The Bruins’ win Saturday moved them to 12-12. The season has been odd so far. For example, Rock Bridge has had both an eight-game losing streak and an eight-game winning streak. Kurzejeski and Little will play a big role in which way Rock Bridge goes next, and they will look to each other to lead the team.
“With him I just know that he’s going to make that play,” Little said. “I have faith in him. I would like him, over anybody else, out there at shortstop when we’re going to turn a double play.”