Michigan State transfer Johnny Nate finding groove in the field and at the plate

GVL / Emily Frye       
Johnny Nate on Sunday April 2, 2017.

Emily Frye

GVL / Emily Frye Johnny Nate on Sunday April 2, 2017.

Josh Peick

After the 2015 season, the Grand Valley State baseball team lost two of its middle infielders to graduation, including shortstop Kevin Zak, who finished his career as the GLIAC’s all-time hits leader.

The next fall, the Lakers brought in two transfer infielders, one of them being Michigan State transfer Johnny Nate. Nate earned the shortstop position in the beginning of the year and started 55 games for the Lakers in the 2016 season.

“That was the first thing we did that fall was try to prioritize who was the best fit and where,” said GVSU coach Jamie Detillion. “It worked out that he was the right fit at shortstop for us.”

Now with a year of experience in a Lakers’ uniform, Nate is excelling at the plate in the early part of the 2017 season. He is slashing .326 at the plate with 22 RBIs and 17 runs scored.

Finding his groove at the plate was a process that started after requesting a release from Michigan State. Looking for a more prominent role on a team, Nate sought other options outside of East Lansing.

“I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to,” Nate said. “I loved everyone there, coaches and players, but I love the game too much to sit on the bench.”

“Moving over here, I don’t regret it at all.”

Formerly a GVSU recruit out of high school, Nate received a phone call from Detillion about joining the Lakers in the ensuing fall. It did not take much convincing to bring Nate to Allendale.

“We always follow guys that we had interest in, see how they do,” Detillion said. “It worked out for him to transfer here.”

Nate immediately cracked the starting lineup captaining the infield from the shortstop position. He hit a respectable .265 while driving in 30 RBIs, which led all GLIAC shortstops last season.

He did most of his damage in clutch situations, hitting .400 with runners in scoring position and .328 with two outs. Exactly half of his RBIs came with two outs.

While he had success last season, this year Nate is finding a groove at the plate.

“Last year, I tried to hit the ball hard, not saying that I don’t this year, but there’s a difference between trying to hit the ball hard and trying to make good contact,” Nate said. “This year I’m trying to put better swings on the ball.”

Nate is on pace to eclipse every major batting statistic from last season while he already blasted three home runs this season, three more than he did all of last season.

“I’m not surprised,” Detillion said. “He’s got good bat speed. When good athletes start to figure out their approach, their rhythm, their timing, all of that, then they can (see results).”

Nate’s contributions do not stop at the plate. Last season, he helped the Lakers record a GLIAC-best 40 double plays.

“The last half of the season, he was really a key component in our defense,” Detillion said. “He was really a game-changer defensively with some of the plays he made.”

An important component for any shortstop to have success in the field is finding chemistry with their partner in the middle of the infield, the second baseman. Nate quickly found that chemistry with Josh Smith.

“Any middle infielders pretty much understand each other,” Smith said. “Middle infielders know how to read each other, and he was pretty easy to pick up. He was probably more getting used to me than me getting used to him.”

Smith missed the first part of the season with an injury, but upon return the two picked up right where they left off in the field.

“We’re both the same type of players,” Nate said. “We’re both hard-nosed players, do whatever we can to win. He wants the ball. I want the ball.”

Now after shuffling the lineup, the two are placed at the top of the batting order right next to each other, with Smith leading off and Nate hitting two.

The Lakers are off to a slow start this season in GLIAC play with a 3-5 record in two series. If the team is to pick it up, the duo will be kick starters at the top of the lineup and in the middle of the infield.

“As a team, on paper, we are really good,” Nate said. “In my opinion, we are the best two middle infielders in the GLIAC, maybe more. I think we’re going to turn it around here as a team.”