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Prep baseball: Litchfield star Estrada verbally commits to Gophers

Tribune photo by Rand Middleton Litchfield star shortstop Eddie Estrada has verbally committed to play for the University of Minnesota beginning in 2015-16.

Eddie Estrada, Jr. is such an obvious five-tool baseball talent — with the solid build, the sweet swing, the arm, the foot speed and the work ethic — that all that natural ability prevented him from fully developing the most important tool in his game.

Now that Estrada has realized that physical gifts are often wasted when not wielded with patience and control, the doors to his baseball future are swinging open wide.

After a sensational year for the Litchfield Dragons this spring, the soon-to-be senior shortstop has verbally committed to play for the University of Minnesota beginning in 2015-16.

“I’ve always dreamed of playing for the Gophers,” Estrada said after receiving a verbal offer from Gopher head coach John Anderson and assistant head coach Rob Fornasiere late last week. “I had been waiting for them to contact me. It’s an honor to be able to play in my home state, where my family and friends can watch me play.”

There’s no mistaking the potential U of M coaches saw to warrant their offer, but the newly evolved Estrada now has the tangible product of his labors to back it up.

He hit .500 for the Dragons this spring, with 37 hits in 74 at-bats. He got on base at a .590 clip, slugged .905, drove in 18 runs, scored 28 runs and stole 19 bases. But the one number he likes to cite are his 14 walks.

“The whole difference was me, at the plate, being disciplined,” Estrada said. “(Before this season) I would call myself immature at the plate. I was going for the ball, not wanting to take any walks. I wanted to go up there and hit a home run every time.”

Dragons head coach Jeff Wollin saw what Estrada was doing but he also is quick to note that, despite the skills that made him seem older in some eyes, Estrada was a young player still learning the game.

“It’s easy to forget he was only a sophomore last year,” Wollin said. “He was just so anxious. He was going to swing at the first strike he saw, or even at the first pitch he saw that wasn’t a strike.”

The turning point probably came last summer, when Estrada played for Team Minnesota in showcase tournament games in Milwaukee and Illinois against top-flight juniors and seniors from the region. He estimated he hit about .500, made some good hustle plays and launched a long home run in one game.

“It hit a house, actually. Everybody was pretty impressed,” Estrada said, adding with a laugh, “I was pretty impressed, too. It was a big hit.”

The light went on.

After football last fall, Estrada chose to not play varsity hockey and devoted himself to weight training and hitting in a few cages set up in an old airplane hangar the school also uses for storage.

Wollin said Estrada was named a baseball team captain for this season, which added responsibility that he carried well. Knowing he would be moving over from third base to shortstop, Estrada spent time polishing his fielding skills at short. This summer, he’s got a job at the school that allows him evenings free to play with Litchfield’s Legion and amateur teams. His goal between his junior and senior seasons is to improve his arm strength and continue to build on the positive results he experienced this spring.

“This season, I went up to the plate thinking base hit,” Estrada said. “Up the middle. Take a walk if I needed to. I was a lot more disciplined. I focused on base hits instead of big home runs. And I knew if I got on base, I could use my speed to steal second base and maybe third base. I made it my mission to get on base instead of going up there and swinging at everything, making a name for myself.”

“He just became a more mature player all around,” Wollin said. “Playing for Team Minnesota, he was around some really good players, saw some good pitching and experienced a higher level of ball. He kind of figured some things out for himself.”

Estrada also learned another important lesson in maturity, having to make a difficult phone call.

Estrada said that during the showcase games, his Team Minnesota coach pointed him out of coaches from the University of Illinois, who, after watching him play, secured a verbal commitment from Estrada to join the Illini baseball team after graduation. Once his beloved Gophers entered the picture, however, Estrada knew he’d have to break that vow to the Illini. And he did.

“The Illinois guys were very disappointed,” Estrada said. “They said, ‘We took you at your word.’ I tried to tell them that it wasn’t anything about them, it was just me making a life decision. I did what was best for my family, my friends, and for me, of course.”

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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