Changes help Conner Mach excel for Missouri baseball team

Wednesday, April 27, 2011 | 10:32 p.m. CDT; updated 11:02 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Missouri State's Aaron Conway collides with Missouri catcher Ben Turner during the ninth inning of Wednesday's game at Taylor Stadium. Conway scored after Missouri left fielder Conner Mach bobbled a single hit by Missouri States' Kevi Medrano.

COLUMBIA — The younger brother watched from the dugout as the older brother walked up to the plate for the last time in his collegiate career.

It was the ninth inning, and Western Kentucky was about to end the Missouri baseball team's season in the 2009 NCAA Regionals. Conner Mach, the freshman, would be back. Kyle Mach wouldn't.

Coach Tim Jamieson walked over. "Conner, get your legs warmed up," he said. "You'll be running for Kyle."

A moment later the older brother hit a double. The younger brother took his place at second base, and Kyle Mach walked off the field to cheers.

"That was pretty special," Conner Mach said. "Coach told me that with his great career, he deserved to get an ovation coming off the field. It was pretty cool getting to run for your brother." 

Two years later, Conner Mach has stepped into another position just as gracefully. Now a junior, he moved to the top of the batting lineup and from third base to left field last week before Missouri's series against Baylor.

By the time the series was over, Conner Mach had earned Big 12 Player of the Week honors. He had five RBIs, two runs scored and a home run while batting .545 in the three-game series. In addition, he hit 4-for-4 and reached base in all five plate appearances in the second game Saturday.

Missouri (17-24) won two of the three games, taking its first conference series of the year. On Wednesday night the Tigers fell to Missouri State 5-2, but Conner Mach continued to justify the lineup change, leading off with a double and adding a single and a run later in the game.

"Conner's a great hitter and a great guy to play with," said first baseman Eric Garcia, who hit a two-run home run Wednesday. "We can all trust him up there to get it done. It's good to have him back hitting the way he used to."

Conner Mach was considered one of the best hitting prospects in the state his senior year at Parkway West High School, but he let major league scouts know he wanted to play in college. His brother had told him how much he had loved everything about Columbia and playing for Missouri, and Conner Mach wanted another chance to play with his brother. 

But after playing well behind his brother at third base, Conner Mach's numbers dropped his sophomore year. This season, he has started in every game but struggled early.

Jamieson saw Mach had hit well in his few starts at the leadoff position, though, and with the team wallowing in a long losing streak, the coach decided to change it up.

Mach worked on not pulling off pitches and hitting to more areas of the field. His coaches also told him he could still be as aggressive.

"It worked out pretty well," Mach said. "A lot of guys that we need to hit in certain situations have been coming up in those situations. It's been fun, and I've been doing pretty well at it."

The fielding switch was more jarring. Mach replaced his brother at third base at Missouri, and, besides "goofing around" in the outfield while playing in the Texas Collegiate League last summer, he had played on the infield throughout high school and college.

Former Missouri outfielder Hunter Mense, back in Columbia after a minor league stint to announce baseball games for ESPN Radio, worked with Mach. Mense knew Mach had played defensive back on the football team in high school (where he also caught passes from friend Blaine Gabbert), and he said the footwork was basically the same.

"He's right," Mach said. "I've been taking what I know about just being an athlete out there and making plays."

Help has come from another former professional player. Phil Gagliano, an infielder who played in the major leagues for 12 years and won a World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967, talks to his grandson before most games. Every time, he reiterates one piece of advice.

"Grandpa Phil's always telling me, 'Get a good fast ball, and hit it hard,'" Mach said. "That's kind of his thing. It's great to get feedback from a guy who's succeeded at the highest level."

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