Last week, Zach Blanden topped out the America East in four offensive categories. He was first in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs scored. Right behind him was fellow senior outfielder Jake Thomas, who ranked either second, third or fourth in all the same categories.
Then on Monday, Thomas jumped on top, surpassing his teammate for first in batting average and on-base percentage. After BU swept St. Bonaventure on Tuesday, Blanden reclaimed his lead over the league. His .364 batting average, .559 slugging percentage and .483 on-base percentage are all good for first, although his 31 runs fall one short. Thomas remains close behind, however, sitting in second or third in all the same categories. One may wonder how long that will last.
“It always seems like whenever I do well, he does even better,” Blanden told Pipe Dream in an interview before the two played hot potato with first place. “He always steps up his game in accordance to mine.”
Both four-year starters, Blanden and Thomas have watched each other develop — and pushed each other to develop — over the years. And they’ve done so in strikingly similar fashion.
While Blanden mostly played right field, Thomas played left. Thomas batted third in the lineup; Blanden became the leadoff hitter his second year. When Thomas put up national numbers their sophomore season, setting new school records in on-base percentage (.517) — which ranked third in the nation — and walks (45), his name peppering the top-five of the conference stat sheets, Blanden’s name was right there too, in the top-10 of seven different statistics.
“I just think they feed off each other,” Binghamton head coach Tim Sinicki said. “I think it’s one pulling for the other and at the same time pushing each other to be better.”
“We’ve never actually talked about it, but I do think that there’s a little bit of competition in between us,” Blanden said with a laugh. “We came in the same year, and this year, he and I are really going at it back and forth … And so I think it’s a good friendly rivalry that we have, and I think it’s really helping the team.”
The two rank in the top-20 of the conference in nearly every category, though they normally fall in the upper half of that. This season, each has garnered AE Player of the Week honors, with Thomas receiving the nod on Feb. 17 and Blanden on April 13. They’ve been integral members of a team that won the AE title the past two seasons, and yet Blanden has somehow managed to shy away from the limelight.
Thomas, a two-time first-team all-conference player and first-team ABCA All-Northeast Region selection in 2013, has been a bit more of a high-profile player than Blanden.
But Blanden’s recognition within the team has been substantial. For all his progress and commitment, the three-year right fielder was asked to make a change entering this season. Former center fielder Billy Bereszniewicz — who is now playing in the L.A. Dodgers organization — graduated, leaving a gaping vacancy in the outfield. So Sinicki decided to shift Blanden into the role.
Blanden flourished, and he attributed his success to learning from Bereszniewicz. Sinicki saw the growth stem from Blanden’s work ethic. Thrown onto the field from day one, Sinicki said Blanden had to learn much on the fly. But given how willing Blanden is to put in extra work and how involved he is in his development, that led to “an outstanding senior year.”
Debatably more distinctive about Blanden is his proclivity for leadership. One of BU’s tenets is to showcase leadership on and off the field, and Blanden has that pegged. The team selected the Homer, New York native as captain before he was No. 1 on the field, because he was already No. 1 in their hearts.
“I think Zach’s personality really is what gets him a lot of respect away from the field,” Sinicki said. “I think he’s got a way about him that shows everyone he really cares about them individually.”
“I actually like the role [as leader] a lot,” Blanden said. “When you first come into college, there’s a big learning curve. And as much as I can do to help [the younger players], teach them about the game in the way that I can, I really like doing that.”
One thing Blanden is in prime position to teach — and so is Thomas — is to embrace the underdog role. The Bearcats may have earned a trip to the NCAA tournament the last two years, but they were never the favorites of the conference. The two-time reigning America East champs aren’t the favorite this year, either. Last year, BU made history when it dropped its opening game in the AE tournament and then raged through six elimination-bracket games to take the title. The team lost three of its most dominant players since then. But that’s college. Rosters are always in flux, and Blanden and Thomas have stepped up to the plate.
“I think the position that we’re in right now, there’s not a big difference between the three seed and the last team in the conference,” Blanden said. “There’s a lot of parity. But playing with our backs against the wall is nothing new for us: We know how to perform under pressure.”
The Bearcats currently occupy fifth in the conference standings with a 6-8 AE record, 16-16-1 overall. With nine AE games left, BU has ample time to ascend the rankings. And one can be sure Blanden and Thomas will lead the way.