05/17/12 — Trojans' 'Hit' Man: Escalante takes 44-game hit streak into Southeast Regional

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Trojans' 'Hit' Man: Escalante takes 44-game hit streak into Southeast Regional

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on May 17, 2012 1:48 PM

Geno Escalante may be California dreaming, but nothing could be finer than to be in North Carolina right now.

The junior college transfer hasn't found the surf and sand to be any different on the East coast after spending one season in Florida. However, it's another type of dirt -- the hard clay at Scarborough Field -- that has Escalante riding high these days.

He certainly wouldn't trade it for anything.

And who could blame him?

Escalante puts his school-record 44-game hitting streak on the line when top-seeded Mount Olive (44-8 overall) faces sixth-seeded Lander (S.C.) University today in opening-round play of the 2012 NCAA Division II Southeast Regional. First pitch is 7 p.m.

The Trojans are the defending regional champs.

"I knew we were a good team in the fall, but I didn't think we'd be where we are right now hosting regionals," said Escalante, who took a break from batting practice on Monday. "But I thought we would be a contender at the end of the year. We started clicking a quarter (of the games) through the year."

Clicking, indeed.

Especially Escalante.

The sweet-hitting, right-hander started his streak after a game two loss in a home doubleheader against LeMoyne (N.Y.) College, which won the Northeast 10-Conference tournament and seized an automatic bid to the East Regional. Since that defeat, the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder has cranked out 84 hits and driven home 60 runs.

Escalante's streak is currently the fifth-longest in Division II history and ranks among the top 16 all-time in all three NCAA classifications combined. Florida Southern alum Nick Diyorio holds the Division II record (49) and former Salve Regina (Calif.) College standout Damien Costantino holds the overall NCAA mark with 60.

"(The streak) passes through my head from time to time, but it's not like I go out there thinking about the streak," Escalante said. "I go out there with intentions to have good at-bats, try to be a team player and let things work out for themselves."

Pitchers undoubtedly have picked their poison this season.

They've had the option to pitch around 2011 All-American Jake Rogers, who bats before Escalante. Or they've waited for Jermaine Berry, who hits after Escalante. So far, opposing staffs have yet to find a decisive formula to shut down the trio who has combined for 240 hits, 28 home runs and 179 RBI this season.

"Jake being in front of me gives them no choice but to pitch to me," a grinning Escalante said. "If they don't pitch to me, they've got to see Jermaine with (hopefully) two runners on base."

Escalante's journey East is interesting.

He played 24 games at Division I Cal State-Fullerton, but left and wound up across the country at JUCO powerhouse Chipotle (Fla.) Junior College. Escalante wanted to transfer to East Carolina after one season, however those plans fell through.

Lancaster, who also recruited Rogers from Chipotle, received a phone call about Escalante. The two talked, Escalante liked what Lancaster had to offer and agreed to come to MOC after he visited the campus.

Escalante was eager to get back on the diamond and just play.

"I was a little bit nervous, but that's true with any new place," Escalante said. "The coaches are sincere and it wasn't too hard to fit in at all."

Escalante is just one of four Trojans to start in all 52 games this season along with Rogers, outfielder Antonio Callaway and lead-off hitter Mike Mercurio. The quartet, ironically, comprises MOC's top half of the lineup.

Before each at-bat, Escalante goes through a simple ritual. He gives the sign of the cross and looks toward the top of the right-field pole. The little ceremony keeps him calm and relaxed.

Opposing pitchers have done nothing to break his demeanor.

"Early in the game I try to look for a fastball and after I my first at-bat or two, I kind of feel how they are going to pitch me," Escalante said. "Sometimes they'll throw some change-ups in certain spots or breaking balls. I just try to have an approach to where I'm sitting on a certain pitch I can drive.

"Hopefully with one of those at-bats, I'll get a hit out of them. If (the streak) continues, it continues."