All-Star Podkul feels right at home in South Bend
SOUTH BEND — Nick Podkul felt right at home on Tuesday night.
The former Notre Dame baseball standout was in his comfort zone as he took part in the Midwest League All-Star Game, donning a uniform for the East squad in the 55th-annual Class A event, held at Four Winds Field.
The East, managed by South Bend Cubs skipper Buddy Bailey, won the game, 4-3. The contest, played in front of a crowd of 7,464, was tied at 3-3 after nine innings and decided by a sudden-death, home run derby.
The West selected Blaze Alexander of Kane County to represent its squad in the deciding sequence. Alexander hit one home run in his 90 seconds of allotted time. The East took the game as Chris Betts of Bowling Green then hit two over the fence, the final one with 19 seconds left on the clock to set off a raucous celebration on the field by the East team.
It capped quite an All-Star experience for Betts. The starting catcher for the East claimed the actual Home Run Derby championship on Monday night as the lefty slugger smashed a total of 24 over the fence in his three rounds. Betts was also chosen MVP of the game Tuesday night.
Podkul, meanwhile, was one of five players from the Lansing Lugnuts on the roster for the game being held in South Bend for the first time in 30 years and just the second time ever.
"It feels like coming back home," said Podkul as he did a pregame interview in the dugout following an on-field autograph session. "It's a great experience for me to be back in South Bend. This is where I spent years at Notre Dame with all my best friends.
"It's a cool experience to be here playing tonight. And to be so close to home."
Podkul, a 22-year old infielder, was one of three players born in Indiana among the All-Stars. He was born in Schereville, and won a pair of state championships at perennial power Andrean. Interestingly enough, the 59ers beat Edgewood 2-1 Tuesday night in Indianapolis to win the Class 3A state title.
Andrean, under legendary coach Dave Pishkur, has won two straight state titles and four in the last six years. Pishkur owns seven state titles, tied for the most in state history. He also is the state's all-time winningest coach with 1,014 victories. He passed former LaPorte coach Ken Schreiber this postseason for the most wins in state history.
"Playing at Andrean was an awesome experience for me," Podkul said. "Coach Pishkur treated me like a son. He got me prepared to play at Notre Dame."
Podkul was drafted in the seventh round in 2018 by the Toronto Blue Jays. He led Notre Dame in 2018 in batting average (.312), on-base percentage (.433) and slugging percentage (,525). Podkul started all 54 games for the Irish in 2018 and also led the team in RBIs with 40 as he earned second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors.
"I had amazing coaches at Notre Dame," Podkul said. "They cared about us as people and not just as players there. I learned a lot off the field at Notre Dame. I also learned about work ethic. School is tough there."
Podkul shook off a slow start this season, his first full season in pro ball, to earn his All-Star spot. He was hitting .254 at the All-Star break with an on-base percentage of .369. He had 13 doubles to go with two triples and two home runs. He also had 32 runs scored, amassed 20 RBIs and 12 stolen bases. Podkul also had a 24-game on base streak in April and May.
"It wasn't really one of my goals to make the All-Star team this season," he said, "but it's definitely a good achievement to do it."
Podkul admitted that life in the minor leagues is a lot different than playing ball in college.
"It's been tough," he said. "There are adjustments as far as playing every day and getting the right amount of rest and taking care of your body. There's also the travel too.
"But this is what I've always wanted. I wouldn't say it's a grind, because this is what I love and what I want to be doing. I'm happy that I'm here."
Podkul, who also played basketball in high school, entered the game at third base in the sixth inning Tuesday night. He was 0-for-1 at the plate, drawing a walk to leadoff the home half of the sixth frame and then striking out in the bottom of the eighth.
The game also saw a trio of South Bend Cubs pitchers appear. Riley Thompson, Brailyn Marquez and Jeff Passantino all worked in relief. Cubs infielder Andy Weber made an appearance at second base and went 0-for-1 with a walk. Cubs pitcher Cam Sanders was also on the East roster, but he did not pitch after throwing this past weekend.
Podkul knows where his focus needs to be as he chases his dream of someday playing in the majors.
"It starts with the basics of getting bigger, stronger and faster for me," said the 6-1, 185-pounder. "But I think that the biggest thing is the mental part of the game. You have to not get too high or low in this game.
"I think what separates players who make it are the ones who are able to master the mental part of the game and the ones who out-tough other players."