GORHAM — How hot is Dylan Hapworth at the plate right now?
To answer that, consider the reaction of University of Southern Maine baseball coach Ed Flaherty. Coaches don’t come more veteran and savvy than Flaherty. This is 31st season as USM’s head baseball coach. Flaherty has won two national titles, he’s coached two national players of the year and more than two dozen all-Americans.
Still, the first thing out of Flaherty’s mouth when asked to describe the roll that Hapworth — his freshman left fielder — is on, Flaherty simply said, “Whoa.”
“He’s a pretty special player,” Flaherty continued.
Entering Thursday’s game at Babson, Hapworth, a Winslow native, led the Huskies in numerous offensive categories, including batting average (.429), home runs (seven), runs batted in (31) runs scored (34), hits (42), on base percentage (.487), and slugging (.796).
With 12 consecutive wins entering Thursday’s game, the Huskies are 19-7 and among the teams receiving votes in the latest d3baseball.com top 25 poll. The eighth win of the streak was a 10-4 victory over rival St. Joseph’s, ranked 24th in the nation. Hapworth homered and drove in two runs in that game.
“It’s a beach ball,” Hapworth said when asked to describe what he’s seeing in the batter’s box, “I’m just pretty relaxed and swinging at good pitches.”
Hapworth sat out last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery to replace the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The surgery has taken on the name of the former Major League pitcher who was the first player to undergo the procedure. Hapworth considered having the surgery following his junior year of high school, in 2014, but put it off. As a senior at Winslow in 2015, he pitched just twice, each a one inning relief stint. In the fall 2015, his first semester at USM, Hapworth had an MRI on his elbow and knew he couldn’t put the surgery off any more.
“My arm was just toast. I couldn’t throw anymore,” Hapworth said.
Hapworth underwent Tommy John surgery on Jan. 14, 2016. All last year was dedicated to the arduous rehab process.
“This puts your arm out for a year. It’s just real important to not rush,” Hapworth said.
Flaherty said Hapworth is the first position player he’s had undergo Tommy John surgery, and he was curious to see if the surgery would affect Hapworth’s swing.
“I know we’ve had trouble with guys who have had labrum tears,” Flaherty said.
However, if there were any concerns with Hapworth, he quickly put those to rest. While he struggled a little in the fall season, Hapworth felt good and this spring, he’s become the Huskies’ top hitter.
“I don’t really think to much of it now. It affected my swing late in the healing process,” Hapworth said. “Now it’s not even an issue.”
Added Flaherty: “His swing is as powerful and compact as you can get… He has a bat I haven’t seen in some time.”
Hapworth’s bat speed was on full display last Saturday, when he went 4 for 5 with three home runs in a 12-4 win over Rhode Island College. Hapworth said that when he stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the eighth inning, he wasn’t thinking of hitting a third home run. Them he turned on the pitch and drove it down the left field line.
“I don’t think about that kind of stuff,” Hapworth said. “When I hit it, I heard the crowd go crazy, and thought ‘this might go out.'”
Flaherty said USM’s game Tuesday, a 4-2 win over UMass-Boston, provided a good example of Hapworth’s development. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Hapworth struck out against UMass-Boston reliever Bryan Kaufman. But Hapworth took Kaufman deep for his seventh homer of the season in his next at bat leading off the eighth. “Until you have a kid two years, you don’t know what he’ll do consistently. You wonder if he’ll go into a funk,” Flaherty said. “He had a bad at bat, and the next at bat, he hits a home run off the kid.”
Flaherty said he has no plans to pitch Hapworth — who threw a fastball that reached the high 80s when healthy in high school — this season. Flaherty added that he will consider pitching Hapworth,once he regains all his arm strength.
“Maybe. We’ll see how it comes. I know he wants to,” Flaherty said. “He doesn’t have the arm velocity yet, but it’s coming.”
This season, Hapworth has settled into left field for the Huskies. Hapworth played some outfield in high school, including center field his senior season with the Black Raiders, but much of his time was spent at shortstop or third base. He’s still learning the nuances of outfield play, Flaherty said, and like all freshmen is still adjusting to the speed of the game. Freshmen are touchy-feely running the bases, Flaherty said, and he expects Hapworth will become more confident as base running experience comes.
For his part, Hapworth said he’s happy playing any position, and wants to help USM win the Little East Conference title and advance to the Division III tournament.
“We’ve just got to go out there and play our game. I don’t think there’s a team that can beat us when we play our game. We’ve got insane depth,” Hapworth said.
With that initial “whoa” out of his system, Flaherty didn’t dial back his praise of Hapworth, comparing the first-year player to former Huskies like All-New England Forrest Chadwick, and national players of the year Tucker White and Sam Dexter.
“All of a sudden, you see (Hapworth) improve so much in a four week period,” Flaherty said. “He has the talent to be one of our all-time great players.”
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242