Sam Russo thrived in his completely new role as an atypical clean-up hitter during his freshman season at State Fair this year.
Russo batted either lead-off or out of the two-hole as a prep and consistently reached base via a hit or walk. The Nixa grad wisely didn’t try to hit for power upon being converted to clean-up man at State Fair. He had just one home run, but produced 34 RBIs while hitting at a .349 clip to rank among the Roadrunners' top hitters.
“It was weird for me because I'm not a bomb hitter. I'm a table-setter guy,” Russo said. “It was something new. I liked it.”
Russo reports opposing pitchers showed him more respect as a clean-up hitter, fearing that he could turn on a fast ball and send it out of the park.
“I saw a lot of changeups (hitting fourth) and I struggled to hit changeups,” he said. “Besides that, I adapted and was fine.”
Russo struck out more than he’s accustomed to, whiffing 37 times in 169 at-bats. But he still reached base at a frequent rate. He drew 26 walks to up his on-base percentage to .433.
Nixa’s single-season record-holder for walks, Russo is back to hitting lead-off while playing for the Route 66 Stars this summer in the Show-Me Collegiate League. Some of his cohorts in the Show-Me League were also his teammates at State Fair.
The Roadrunners featured a handful of Nixa and Ozark grads, helping all of them deal with any bouts of homesickness they experienced.
In addition to Russo, former Eagles playing in Sedalia were pitcher Keith Piepmeier and infielder Ryan Retone, and former Tigers included outfielder Devyn Wright and infielder Rhett Hayward. Also playing for the Roadrunners were Branson grad Carter Jenkins and Rogersville grad Blythe Blakey.
“When I got there, I already knew at least 9-10 of the guys because we're all from the same area,” Russo said. “(Nixa grads) Tanner Grant and Parker Bridges are coming next year, so there will be five Nixa guys. (State Fair coaches) recruit heavy from southwest Missouri.”
Looking ahead, Russo isn’t taking his starting spot on the Roadrunners for guaranteed, thus one of the reasons he’s trying to stay sharp over the summer in the Show-Me League.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” said Russo, who hopes to move on to play at a four-year college after next year. “We’ve got a lot of new guys and a lot of good hitters coming in. They'll keep me on my toes. I'm excited about it.
“If you play juco ball, you've got to love it or else you won't last,” he added. “It’s a grind. It's a lot more intense than high school baseball, that's for sure.”