A leadoff batter's objective is to get on base any way possible, whether it's getting a hit, getting hit by a pitch or drawing a walk. He hopefully sets the table for those who follow.
Shortstop Mike Bjerkness has been setting the table for the Brainerd Braves amateur baseball team with exceptional hitting this season. In one remarkable stretch he led off seven consecutive games with home runs. Nine of his 15 home runs have occurred while leading off a game.
Those are startling statistics for a player who didn't hit a varsity home run while playing for state championship and state runner-up teams at Brainerd High School in 1995 and 1996.
The 22-year-old is hitting .490 with 16 doubles, 53 RBI, 25 walks, 61 runs scored and 11 stolen bases. In his last 13 games Bjerkness is a hitting an incredible .744 (32-for-43).
"To me it's finally learning to hit strikes and be patient," Bjerkness said of his power surge. "When you're younger you're playing a bunch every day. Now that I'm not in college I don't get 150 swings in the batting cage every day. The key is hitting strikes, the maturity level and to gain some size so I have finally caught up to where other people are at."
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Bjerkness is one of many reasons the Braves are returning to the Class C state tournament 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Sleepy Eye against Arlington. He was named most valuable player of the Region 8C tournament as Brainerd repeated as champion by winning all four of its games.
The Braves are favored against Arlington, whose record hovers near the .500 mark. Bjerkness knows little about Arlington other than it drafted a top-notch right-handed pitcher in 6-5, 220-pound Mac Zachow of Gaylord. Zachow was 4-for-7 with a home run in the Region 4C final series against Waterville.
"Personally, I don't care who I'm playing against," said Bjerkness. an employee of Integra Communications. "You have to play them all. It doesn't matter if they have Frank Viola on the mound or Roger Clemens. You still have to beat them. I don't look much at the hype. We just have to bear down as a team. It takes nine guys to do it. You have to focus forward.
"I know we can do it, no question. If we get everyone confident and ready for one game I don't see how you can not be ready at this point."
The Braves have steamrollered the opposition on their way to a 33-5 record. The average age of the team is about 21. Brainerd has a core group of players that have been together for at least five years.
"I look at things as stepping stones," Bjerkness said. "When I first started playing for the Braves we got pounded. Our goal was to win in the playoffs and make the region. We did that three years ago. That was a stepping stone. We got beat up twice (in the region) and that was it.
"We wanted the next step. We wanted to go to state. You always have winning in the back of your mind but that was the next step. We got there last year. We lost a heart-breaker there. That was a stepping stone to achieve what we're looking at.
"Now we're sitting in the seat that we've been there before. I noticed after winning last weekend there wasn't any jumping up and down. We were not all that excited about it. It was more of a driven look. It was like everyone looked at each other and said, 'This is the next step.' We're going where we have to be. I think that leads on to the season we've had."
Bjerkness has blossomed while making two major adjustments. In high school he usually batted second and played second base. Since he joined the Braves, Bjerkness has led off.
"I think I fit in the mold," Bjerkness said of a leadoff batter. "I didn't have any problem adjusting to it."
Playing shortstop proved more of a challenge. Bjerkness moved to short when teammate Jade O'Brien began playing in wood-bat leagues. O'Brien has returned to play full-time for the Braves this season but Bjerkness remains anchored at short.
"It was a big change at first because Jade had always played short," Bjerkness said. "It was just more getting repetitions. Even in college I played second base.
"I've gotten quite a bit physically bigger than I was in high school, with weight, time and growing up. It's made a big difference as far as being able to throw across the diamond. In some aspects (playing short) is basically the same (as playing second)."
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