Baseball, The Citadel coach Fred Jordan likes to say, is a game of opportunity.
Justin Mackert got his almost exactly a year ago, when the Bulldogs' junior first baseman, Chris McGuiness, was picked in the 13th round of the major league draft by the Boston Red Sox.
At the time, Mackert was a little-used outfielder who had never played first base and had hit just .150 in a grand total of 20 at-bats as a freshman last season.
"We threw him a first baseman's glove in the fall," Jordan said after the Bulldogs won the Southern Conference tournament last weekend. "And now he's the MVP of the tournament. What a great story."
Mackert, a 6-0, 190-pound sophomore, batted .467 with seven RBIs as the Bulldogs went 4-0 in the SoCon tournament, edging out teammate Asher Wojciechowski for the Walt Nadzak most outstanding player award.
Mackert also was involved in the most controversial play of the tournament, when he was called safe on a hard slide into home that touched off a ninth-inning brawl in the Bulldogs' 6-5 win over Elon.
"It was a weird play," Mackert said. "The catcher was out in front of home plate, and he didn't have the ball. I couldn't really get around him, so I had to go through him. It was kind of a half-slide. I thought it was clean, and obviously the umpire thought so, too."
And he's been a key figure in the late-season surge that has carried the Bulldogs to regular season and tournament titles and to a 12-game win streak, the longest among the 64 teams in the NCAA regionals.
Mackert has hit safely in all 12 of those games, batting .477 with 15 runs scored and 14 RBIs over that stretch. During a three-game sweep at Georgia Southern to lock up the regular season title, he homered once in each game, driving in five runs.
And for the season, Mackert is batting .341 with five homers and 37 RBIs, with 24 stolen bases in 27 attempts as the third-seeded Bulldogs prepare to face No. 2 Virginia Tech in the Columbia regional Friday.
It seems clear, as Jordan says, that Mackert "is figuring it out."
Said Mackert, "My pitch selection at the plate is getting better. I'm not really swinging at too many balls. I've been looking to pull the ball and drive it in the gaps, and it's been working out."
Citadel assistant David Beckley was scouting another player when he discovered Mackert at a showcase tournament in Cincinnati. Mackert grew up in Cleveland as a neighbor of former Indians catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., and went to St. Ignatius High School.
"I used to go to all the Indians' games in 1995, '96, '97," said Mackert, who is still friends with Alomar's son, Marcus, and calls former Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar "Uncle Robbie."
"We'd get to hang around in the clubhouse," he said. "I grew up just idolizing those guys. That's who I wanted to be, and I'd try to be just like them."
He's off to a good start.
"I think earlier in the season, Justin was striving just to make contact," Jordan said. "Lately, he's been striving to punish the ball. He has that ability. He'll be a double-digit guy (in homers) and drive in 60 next year, we think."
All he needed was an opportunity.
The Citadel's Asher Wojciechowski was named to USA Baseball's list of 30 players announced as semifinalists for the 2010 Golden Spikes Award presented to the nation's top amateur.
Wojciechowski sports a 12-2 overall record. The junior has a 3.25 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 16 starts and 119 innings. He is second in Division I in strikeouts and in victories.
Coastal Carolina pitcher Anthony Meo (13-1, 1.80 ERA) also is a semifinalist.