Some hitters tense up when stepping to the plate in the late innings with the game on the line and runners on base. Tyler Steen reacts like he's still a little kid calmly playing in his back yard in Raymond.
The North Dakota State University junior catcher has been on a rampage this past week, rapping not one, but three game-winning hits in the last four games. On Tuesday, the left-handed hitter with a fluid swing, delivered a bases-clearing double into the right-center field gap with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning against the Minnesota Gophers, helping the Bison rally for a 5-2 victory before 1,023 fans at Newman Field in Fargo.
"The Gophers' closer had been carving up our hitters with off-speed stuff, said Steen, a 2007 graduate of MACCRAY High School. "He was probably thinking that I came into the game cold so he threw me a first-pitch fastball over the plate. But I had been catching in the bullpen for an hour so I was warm."
Steen, who bats second in the order, is second on the team in hitting this spring with a .304 batting average and is tied for the team lead with 20 RBI. He's always been a productive hitter, hitting .490 as a junior and .482 as a senior in high school, and then having one standout season with Ridgewater College.
He also plays during the summer with the Raymond Rockets amateur baseball team, where his father, Butch, is the manager. Steen, who sister step-sister Terri played softball for three years at NDSU before it went Division I, plans to play baseball again this summer with the Rockets, or possibly with a summer collegiate team.
Winning one-on-one confrontations is nothing out of the ordinary for Steen, having posted 166 career wins in six years on the varsity wrestling team at MACCRAY.
But he has never experienced anything like the past few games, especially at the level of play he is at. Last Friday, Steen delivered a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning to give the Bison a 6-5 win over Centenary. The next night, Steen again found himself at the plate with the game on the line in the ninth, this time lashing a two-out walkoff double to left-center field against Centenary. The Bison lost the second game of a doubleheader Saturday to Centenary, 16-12.
After a postponement on Sunday and an off-day Monday, the Bison were pitted against the Gophers. Steen was given the night as the NDSU backup catcher had been idle for several days. But when the Bison loaded the bases after an intentional walk in the eighth, NDSU coach Tod Brown called on Steen as a pinch hitter. He was 4-for-8 in a pinch-hitting role last season, but had yet to get a pinch-hitting call this season. But like a reliable mailman, Steen delivered again.
"He's been unbelievable the last few days," said Brown. "He's a great kid who works hard. He is really a clutch hitter and he's proven that time and again in recent games."
Steen took the first offering from Gophers' closer Scott Matyas and crushed a line drive into the gap. He heard the cheering and looked around to see that he was now the only runner on base.
"I just thought, wow, it happened again," said Steen. "A lot of my teammates are still talking about it, but I told them we need to get the game taken care of earlier and not wait until the eighth or ninth because I know there's going to be a time when I don't come through."
Doesn't seem like that will be any time soon.
"I feel really comfortable at the plate right now," he said. "I'm anxious to get out there again. You always dream about hitting a game-winning home run or something. When I was little, I always pretended I was up to bat with a chance to win the game. I still do that. When I'm in the batting cage and I'm on my last pitch, I think to myself that there are runners on base and I'm going to hit it as hard as I can."
Only now it's become a reality.