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Powering Down

Bannon's Homers Fall as Average Rises for UC Santa Barbara

April 12, 2001|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A reduction in power needn't be cause for alarm.

Not for Jeff Bannon, anyway, who has plugged into a new role for the UC Santa Barbara baseball team while remaining a spark for the much-improved Gauchos.

Bannon, a senior shortstop from Camarillo High, has only three home runs entering today's 3 p.m. game at Cal State Northridge, the first of a three-game Big West Conference series.

Quite a drop off, considering Bannon, 6 feet 3 and 190 pounds, led the Gauchos in home runs and total bases each of the last two seasons and is tied for fifth on the school career home run list with 28.

But it is mission accomplished for Bannon, who decided before the season to shift his focus.

"It's just been a change in my approach," Bannon said. "There are a lot more guys on the team capable of hitting the long ball. I try to get on base and score runs."

There's plenty of power in store for Santa Barbara (25-9), which will be playing its Big West opener today while Northridge (23-13) looks to improve on its 1-2 conference mark.

The Gauchos, who had a seven-game winning streak snapped with a 6-4 loss Tuesday at USC, have won 13 of 15 games and have their best record at this stage since 1984.

Santa Barbara entered the week leading the nation with a .357 batting average.

"This is the best Santa Barbara team I've seen since '96," Northridge Coach Mike Batesole said.

Bannon, batting .310 in his fourth season, remains an integral part of a potent lineup, leading the team with 12 doubles.

Bannon, who bats sixth, also doesn't get cheated when it comes to getting his swings. Last week against UC Riverside, he drew his first walk in 139 plate appearances this season.

"I feel I could hit with a lot more power," Bannon said. "But the pitches I would drive over fences I [try to] slap for singles.

"A lot of it is just maturity, being more confident. I'm not trying so hard to impress anyone."

An early season back injury hasn't helped his cause. Bannon suffered the injury lifting weights during the off-season--"kind of from overuse," he said--and has been slow to recover.

He was in the dugout against San Jose State in the second game of the season, snapping a string of 119 consecutive starts at shortstop or third base over 2 1/2 seasons. Bannon appeared as a pinch-hitter.

Bannon said he was unaware he hadn't walked. Or of his streak of starts.

"I try not to focus on numbers too much," Bannon said.

Ironically, Bannon is keenly aware of one statistic: He never hit a home run in three seasons in high school while a member of one of the region's most potent offenses.

Bannon batted .413 as a senior in 1997 while earning All-Marmonte League honors and helping the Scorpions win a league title. The lineup included Joe Borchard, now playing in the Chicago White Sox organization.

Bannon, who also was recruited by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Nevada Reno, was among Camarillo's best hitters, topping Borchard in hits as a junior and senior.

Bannon was not selected in baseball's amateur draft in 1997.

Bannon hit 13 home runs as a college sophomore while starting every game at shortstop.

"He had a strong body but I didn't envision him having the power numbers he's had," Santa Barbara Coach Bob Brontsema said. "We saw him as a third baseman. He's been one of our biggest power sources. But we definitely have [other] guys in the lineup who can hit the long ball."

Brontsema encouraged Bannon this season to focus on hitting to all fields and playing solid defense.

"I did want him to use the field more and be more of a free swinger," Brontsema said. "That cut back on his power numbers, but it boosted up his average."

Bannon batted .265 with 11 home runs last season, striking out 40 times in 211 at-bats. Bannon entered the week with 18 strikeouts in 129 at-bats.

Bannon said he began to reconsider his role before the season.

"Putting pressure on myself to hit home runs all the time leads to strikeouts and bad pitches," Bannon said. "As a senior, I get pitched to a lot tougher. A lot more 2-and-0 sliders and things.

"It's a lot more rewarding when your success comes from hits and not home runs."

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