LaPorta’s Senior Gambit Could Pay Off In June

GAINESVILLE, Fla.–When major league teams look at Matt LaPorta, there are a lot of numbers to consider.

There are his power numbers and other stats. LaPorta will finish his career at Florida as the school’s all-time home run leader and will also rank among Southeastern Conference and NCAA leaders. This season he had complemented his homers with a career-high batting average of .423, and if he continued at the same pace, he’ll obliterate Gator records in slugging (LaPorta’s is .853) and on-base percentage (.579).

There is also the number of injuries he’s had the past two seasons: three. Last season, he had a strained oblique, which led to a .259 batting average and 43 games played. This season, he had ankle and quadriceps injuries, which have cost him seven games. It makes one wonder if he’s ever thought of changing his uniform number: 13.

Matt LaPorta is putting his name all over college record books, and he had at least three games remaining in his college career. Going into Florida’™s final regular-season series, here’™s where LaPorta stood on three all-time college home run lists:
1. Matt LaPorta 73
2. Brad Wilkerson 55
3. Ben Harrison 40
4. Ryan Shealy 39
5. Mark Ellis 36
5. Mario Linares 36
1. Eddy Furniss, Louisiana State 80
2. Brad Cresse, Louisiana State 78
3. Matt LaPorta, Florida 73
4. Rafael Palmeiro, Mississippi State 67
5. Andy Phillips, Alabama 61
5. Will Clark, Mississippi State 61
1. Pete Incaviglia, Oklahoma State 100
2. Jeff Ledbetter, Florida State 97
3. Todd Greene, Georgia Southern 88
4. Eddie Furniss, Louisiana State 80
5. Frank Fazzini, Florida State 79
6. Brad Cresse, Louisiana State 78
7. George Canale, Virginia Tech 76
8. Chad Sutter, Tulane 75
9. Matt LaPorta, Florida 73
9. Cory Snyder, Brigham Young 73

Then there are the numbers his adviser Scott Boras will want. Last season, the combination of injury and the tough-negotiating Boras may have been why LaPorta wasn’t taken until the 14th round by the Red Sox. This season, LaPorta is a senior and out of leverage.

So how will scouts and general managers crunch these numbers?

LaPorta doesn’t know and he doesn’t really care.

“No, I mean, you’re only as good as your talent,” he said. “I can’t say; I don’t know what will happen. God will take care of it. He has a plan for me. There’s some other good power hitters but I really don’t know how many.

“I just play baseball. It’s too early. My agent has been quiet. He’s letting me play baseball and not worry about those types of things. My main thing is to help my team.”

Another Bucket

LaPorta quickly took a more active role when trying to help his team this season. A little more than two weeks into the season, he approached assistants Don Norris and Tim Parenton.

“I gotta get going,” LaPorta told them. “Let’s go hit.”

LaPorta skipped the batting cages. He went right onto the McKethan Stadium field. He wanted to see the flight of his hits, where they went. Right field, center, left field. Over the fences and in the gaps.

And the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder didn’t take a few extra minutes of batting practice. He was out there for almost two hours.

“Another bucket, another bucket,” Parenton said. “Swinging and swinging and swinging. We thought he might hurt something.”

No worries. The strained oblique that ruined LaPorta’s season in 2006 was a memory. After he hit 26 homers and drove in 79 runs as a sophomore, when the Gators reached the national title series against Texas, he was limited to 14 homers, 38 RBIs and a .259 average last season.

This year, the Charlotte, Fla., native had 19 homers and 49 RBIs in 156 at-bats, and he had reeled off a 20-game hitting streak. “He’s our go-to guy,” Parenton said.

Parenton said now that LaPorta is clear of the oblique injury, people know that 2005 wasn’t a fluke.

“The scouts see it now, how the injury did affect him,” he said. “Look how long Albert Pujols was out. Guys left and right get it in pro ball, but they’re in the training room 24 hours a day. He’s a student going to class.

“(The scouts) know he’s got the power back and is moving great.”

A Bit Of Perspective

LaPorta’s numbers are more impressive when you consider:

As Florida’s big bat in a young lineup, he often gets pitched around. He has walked 41 times and has been hit by pitches another 18. “I get about one good pitch an at-bat,” he said. “I have to take advantage of it.”

Parenton added: “It’s maturity and discipline. Some guys might try too hard, but Matt’s relaxed.”

Despite seeing few good pitches, LaPorta rarely chases balls out of the strike zone. He has struck out just 15 times.

“I don’t swing at pitchers’ pitches,” he said. “I’m most proud about not striking out much. I put the ball in play or get on base.”

LaPorta’s numbers in the SEC are better than his overall stats. Against SEC pitching, considered among the best in the country, he was batting .456/.607/.937. He had 11 of his team’s 32 homers in SEC play, along with 25 RBIs.

“The pitching in the SEC is so good, they’re coming in, it doesn’t matter who’s coming to bat,” LaPorta said. “I see more strikes than against non-conference teams.”

Despite his stats–which he says he rarely looks at–LaPorta doesn’t feel like he’s been in a groove the whole year.

“I take the same approach whether I feel great or lousy,” he said. “In baseball, you’re probably going to feel like you can hit everything maybe 10 games. The other 45, you have to find a way to get it done.

“Take Florida State (on April 18). I was feeling real sick and tired. But I stayed with a good approach and in a good zone.”

He went 2-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored in a 5-4 win.

The Gators were hovering around .500 this season and fighting to make both the SEC and NCAA tournaments. They’ve used about 50 different batting orders this season and deployed about 40 combinations of position players. NCAA tournament play will start June 1, and the draft will be June 7.

LaPorta said he is optimistic about his team’s chances in the former and is not concerned about the latter. A person of faith and fate, he avoids fretting about things he doesn’t have control over.

“It’s been fun for me,” he said. “I go out every day and have as much fun as I can. You never know when your last day of baseball will be. Win or lose, I give it my best.

“Why worry about tomorrow for today already is here? You can’t control the future.”

Craig Handel covers Florida athletics for The News-Press of Fort Myers, Fla.