COLUMBIA — By the time the game was over, Rock Bridge left fielder Matt Priest had almost forgotten the diving catch he made to save a run earlier in the day.
“Oh, yeah!” he said when the topic was brought up in his first postgame interview, almost like he had pushed the memory of the sprawling play that left grass stains on his knees to the back of his mind.
It’s hard to blame Priest for thinking of other things with how much has gone his way since winning a spot in the Bruins’ starting lineup a month ago. Maybe he was thinking about the run he scored or the two he drove in or the fact that a 1-for-3 night at the plate, impressive at any level of baseball, actually dropped his batting average to .469 at the time.
More likely, though, is just that the remarkable has become common lately for Priest, a senior riding a last-time wave on which he has blossomed into the Bruins’ most unlikely star.
Bruins coach Justin Towe remembers the first time he wrote the name “Priest” on the lineup card. It was over Easter week in Covington, Tenn., during a tournament. Throughout his junior year Priest had been used only as a pinch runner. He and right fielder Joe Barbee are neck-and-neck for the title of fastest Bruin.
Priest’s legs made him an asset in the outfield as well, and when his senior year started that’s where he found himself, in left field. But in the early season Priest was DH-ed for, his days regulated to all-glove and no-bat.
“The first couple games he didn’t hit,” Towe said. “A lot of times I use that DH spot in the lineup to run pitchers in and out of or whatever else. Matt was as Matt always is, like ‘Yes sir, no problem. I understand. Yes sir.’”
That all changed during warmups in Covington, when a ball hopped up and struck cleanup hitter Jansen Smith above his eye. He needed stitches and missed three games, opening up a spot in the lineup.
“We had penciled Jansen into playing some left field. We weren’t sure what we were going to get out of Matt,” Towe said. “But when Jansen went down with that injury, Matt got a chance to swing the bat. And he’s still swinging. He hasn’t stopped yet.”
Priest lined a single in his first at bat and has smacked 24 more hits over the last month, just four less than team leader Barbee, who has 26 more plate appearances. His .436 batting average and .582 slugging percentage entering Monday were second on Rock Bridge only to Smith, who has played third base predominately since Priest entered the lineup. And all this production has been from the No.9 hole, where opposing teams expect a pushover — not a hitter with discipline and speed.
“I know that when he comes up to hit, teams are just like "Oh — look at this guy,” said second baseman Mike Nemec, Priest’s best friend. “But he can really swing it. He’ll hit the ball badly to second base and run it out. The second baseman thinks he has time, and Matt’s past the base already.”
Towe welcomes any production from the bottom of the lineup but values Priest’s even more for other reasons. He admires the leadership role Priest took when the Rock Bridge baseball team volunteered at Special Olympics events, helping at baseball and softball games to set up for participating athletes.
Then, through the student organization Bruins United, Priest made it possible for a Special Olympics athlete to throw out the first pitch at Rock Bridge's home opener.
"It's just the right thing to do," said Priest, who said he has family members with mental disabilities.
“I don’t think anyone is surprised (at his production),” Towe said. “I just think everyone feels so good for a person like him. He’s the kind of kid that makes coaching fun.”
He's having fun himself, too. Priest followed up his diving catch with an almost identical one in the Bruins next game, a 9-8 comeback win over visiting Eureka. The senior stuck the landing despite a steady rain and mud that stained his pants as high as his thighs. Afterward, he stood for his second postgame interview.
“That catch was really fun because of the water,” he said, still grinning. “I got to slide around out there. The game is meant to be fun.”
There’s that f-word again. If someone were scouting Priest that might be what they make note of. He doesn’t have the best arm or the best swing. He doesn’t know his exact 40-yard dash time, and he doesn’t know the secret to his success.
But the secret isn’t difficult to figure out. For Matt Priest, it’s just about having fun and finding himself on the field.
“I knew I could (play like this) for a while,” he said. “I’m just happy I got that one chance.”