Every player hopes to get off to a great start to the season. Few, however, have expectations that rival what Asheville shortstop Patrick Valaika has been able to accomplish in the first four-plus weeks of the 2014 campaign.
In his first full professional season after being drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the ninth round last June, Valaika hit safely in 23 of his 24 contests and entered Wednesday's matchup at Lexington riding a 21-game hitting streak, the longest in the Minors in 2014. He ranks second in the South Atlantic League with a .368 batting average and fourth on the circuit with a .575 slugging percentage.
Though never known as a premier hitter, Valaika is no stranger to success. In 2013, the shortstop helped guide UCLA to its first national championship in baseball. He became the first Bruin to be named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and was tabbed to the Division I Rawlings Gold Glove team and the College World Series All-Tournament team. Though his batting average was a modest .253 in his final collegiate season, he paced UCLA with five homers and 48 RBIs and tied for the team lead with 14 doubles.
"Being part of a national championship team, it's an honor. Not a lot of guys can say they accomplished that feat," Valaika said. "Even at UCLA, our team was the first one, members of that exclusive club, I guess you could call it. It was an awesome experience, and I get asked about it a lot."
Valaika is also asked often about the baseball success that runs in his family. The third of four brothers, Patrick played shortstop at Hart High School in Santa Clarita, California, following in the footsteps of his older siblings, Chris and Matt. Chris went on to play at UC Santa Barbara and was a third-round pick of the Reds in 2006 prior to reaching the Major Leagues. Matt also attended UCSB and was selected by St. Louis in the 34th round in 2010 but had to give up the game two years ago after suffering an aneurysm in his aorta. Youngest brother Nick is a senior at Hart and has committed to attend UCLA.
"Growing up, baseball was always a big part of my life," Valaika said. "But my parents stressed that my brothers and I go to college because baseball doesn't last forever. Of course, pro ball is definitely different than college in that you don't have to worry about school and all of the work that goes into that. Right now I'm fortunate to be able to play baseball as my job. I'm very grateful to be in this position and doing something that I love to do."
Neither Patrick nor his two older brothers were drafted out of high school. Valaika says that it wasn't until midway through his prep career that he grew into his body and started to figure things out on the diamond. Upon attracting interest from and visiting UCLA, Valaika realized the school offered everything he wanted, including a great education and a dedicated athletic department that was close to home.
"I believe that all aspects of my game improved at UCLA," Valaika said. "Coming out of high school, I was more of an athlete who played baseball. I refined my skills in college. We had a very knowledgeable coaching staff that taught me a lot and molded me into the player I am."
In addition to his consistent offense thus far with Asheville, Valaika has impressed the Tourists' coaching staff with the skills that earned him recognition in college. Tourists hitting coach Mike Devereaux says the shortstop's feel for the game is apparent and believes greater achievements are on the horizon for the 21-year-old infielder.
"He's got a lot of potential, and he knows what he's doing out there," Devereaux said. "He's confident, he has quick hands and he has the instincts to be at the right place at the right time. He's comfortable with the speed of the game. He's doing a great job in everything we've asked him to do."
Dominating 'Dog: Charleston left-hander Caleb Smith continues his dominance on the bump, leading the Sally League in ERA (0.66), opponents' batting average (.144) and WHIP (0.80). The 14th-round pick in 2013 out of Sam Houston State has overwhelmed Delmarva in two starts, limiting the Shorebirds to three hits and a walk with 13 strikeouts over six shutout innings April 24 before repeating the feat May 4, when he scattered two hits, struck out seven and did not walk a batter over six scoreless frames.
Saturday night special: Savannah outfielder Jared King got engaged May 3 after proposing on the field to his girlfriend, Maggie, who threw out the game's first pitch. While King proceeded to go 0-for-4 with a walk and a run scored, he joined forces with his teammates to extend their winning streak to five games with a 12-2 win over Rome, marking the Sand Gnats' largest margin of victory this season. Shortstop Gavin Cecchini went 3-for-6 with a double, two runs scored and two RBIs to extend his hitting streak to a season-best six games.
BlueClaws win slugfest: Lakewood and Asheville combined for 25 runs and 37 hits in the BlueClaws' 14-11 victory at McCormick Field on May 4. Lakewood tied a franchise record with five homers and fell one hit shy of tying the team record with 22. Five Lakewood players had at least three hits, led by shortstop J.P. Crawford, who had a home run, three singles and a walk with two runs scored.
Bill Ballew is a contributor to MiLB.com.