Everyone points to last year's Big East tournament semifinal game against Boston College as the defining moment in Jim Negrych's Pittsburgh career. The second baseman hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the 12th inning to send the Panthers a 3-2 win and a berth in the title game.
"It was 0-2, two outs and the season on the line, and I'm thinking, 'What am I going to tell my kids?' " Pitt coach Joe Jordano said. "He gets a big, fat changeup hanging and hits it out of the stadium to dead center, about 400 feet. In my opinion, it was one of the biggest hits in our program in a long time. That's Jimmy."
Yes, Negrych has proven a clutch player, if you're the type who believes in such a thing. Jordano is. If not, just know he's the player with the most determination, the one who most hates to lose and the batter his teammates most want at the plate with the game on the line.
Negrych proved that in his first college game. Pittsburgh traveled to New Orleans to face Thomas Diamond, whom the Rangers selected 10th overall later that year. The freshman doubled to left-center field in his first college at-bat and homered to left-center in his third at-bat to give his team a 3-2 win and himself a three-hit debut.
"From that day on, I said if I can do it against this kid, I can do it against anybody," said Negrych, who registered two hits against Boston College's Chris Lambert, another future first-rounder, later that season.
Put simply, Negrych is a pure hitter. He ranked second in the Big East with a .378 average and 20 doubles (a school record) as he earned Freshman All-America honors in 2004, then shared MVP honors in the New England Collegiate League. The Buffalo, N.Y., product led the Big East in home runs during a .349-16-58 sophomore season to become a first-team All-America choice. He tied for second in the Cape Cod League last summer with six home runs, though he was disappointed with his .224 average.
Negrych's competitive nature and work ethic have pushed him to work himself into that type of hitter. And those same traits leave him with a somewhat different memory of the Big East tournament game, one in which he also hit a solo homer to score his team's other run.
He still can't get past the error he made in the top of the 12th inning. Boston College loaded the bases with two outs when Shawn McGill hit a grounder up the middle, a play that Negrych always makes. He fumbled the ball and then sat on it as BC took a one-run lead. His thoughts turned immediately to the team's seniors and how he might have just ended their college careers.
"It's funny how things work out," Negrych said. "One minute I'm the goat, the next I'm the hero.
"I don’t even remember hitting that home run. That was like an out-of-body experience with everyone running around and yelling. It was surreal. But the error, it was devastating. It was a lot more surprising than me hitting a home run. I made that error and all eyes were just on me."
That moment stayed with Negrych during fall practice, when he stressed improving his footwork and overall defense at second base. He remembers standing in the field and simply wanting to get back to the plate during his sophomore season, but knows that aspect of his game is important if he's to end his junior season as the third- to fifth-round draft pick scouts project him as.
Jordano said Negrych's knowledge of the game and positioning help him make up for average range, feet and arm strength. He's made strides as a second baseman and even played shortstop some last season. And his bat makes up for the rest. The 5-foot-10 Negrych shows above-average power for his position and could reach 15-20 home runs as a major leaguer."He's a player at the next level," Jordano said. "The kid just won't fail."