Lee County’s five-tool star Daniel Nichols will take his talents to Georgia next season, but before he does, he has his sights set on rewriting the Trojans’ record books for home runs and batting average. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
LEESBURG — Why on earth would anyone ever pitch to Daniel Nichols?
It’s a valid question.
The Lee County senior first baseman has 43 plate appearances this season and has been retired fewer than 10 times. The odds are just not in the pitcher’s favor with this guy.
“I’m seeing it pretty good right now,” said the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Nichols, a University of Georgia signee who leads the 12-5 Trojans in nearly every statistical offensive category.
And if teams keep throwing to the lefty, he’s got a shot at knocking off some pretty memorable names in Lee County lore. Nichols is hitting .581 this season from the No. 3 hole, 37 points higher than the .544 clip former Trojan and current San Francisco Giants star catcher Buster Posey hit in 2005, a mark that stands as the all-time highest single-season average in school history.
Want To Go?
WHO: Lowndes (9-9) at Lee County (12-5).
WHAT: Non-region showdown between two of South Georgia’s top baseball programs.
WHEN: 6 p.m. today.
Nichols’ power numbers are there, too. He has eight homers in 17 games, just six shy of Posey’s school record 14 dingers from ‘05, a season that lasted 37 games for a team that advanced all the way to the Class AAAA state title series.
“His power numbers have surprised me with them changing the bat,” said Lee County head coach Rob Williams, referring to a nationwide change to a more wood-like bat this season. “They kept saying it would really diminish the power.”
Nichols admits he envisioned about 10 home runs coming into this season, but now the near-record numbers are in his sights.
“Now that I’ve gotten here, I want to get Buster’s number (of 14 homers),” Nichols said. “That would be an amazing accomplishment.”
As for why pitcher’s dare to throw it near the plate against Nichols, Williams said, “Hopefully because we’ve got some guys behind him swinging a pretty good stick. That makes it a little tougher to put him on.”
Andrew Stroud, hitting .407 on the season, and Jess Posey, who is healthy again after fracturing his toe earlier this season, make it a dangerous proposition to even put Nichols on base.
Luke Roland, who hits just ahead of Nichols in the lineup, has also benefited. Teams don’t want anyone on base in front of Nichols, but Roland has made that difficult with 11 walks and a .333 average, along with plenty of speed and the ability to move runners over with the bunt. Roland has also seen better pitches, leading to three homers thus far.
“They’re not going to pitch away from me when they’ve got to worry about (Daniel),” Roland said. “I know I’m going to get at least one or two strikes to swing at. (The) first good strike I try to swing.”
Nichols, who hit .404 as a junior with 27 RBI, already has a team-high 24 RBI this year after spending time in the weight room in the offseason. His left-handed stroke now generates even more pop, and it also helps to be able to turn to family for advice. Daniel’s brother, Thomas, was also one of the all-time greats at Lee County and went on to star at Georgia Tech.
“The difference from last year is I’ve increased my bat speed a lot,” Daniel said. “Working with my brother, he helped me out mentally with the hitting game and I watch other people hit in the pros. Whatever you can do to get yourself better.”
Nichols had four hits and a homer in the Trojans’ last game, a win against Bainbridge. The home run was a curveball he hit over the left field wall and the other three hits were also to the opposite field.
“He hits the ball well to left center,” Williams said of Nichols’ ability to hit the outside pitch. “If they want to work him away, he can drive it away. He’s doing a good job of taking what the pitchers give him and not trying to do too much.”
Nichols plans to room with Jess Posey, Buster’s youngest brother who will walk-on as a pitcher at Georgia, next season in Athens, along with roommate and UGA pitching signee Michael Peel from Claxton High. Appling County’s Byron Buxton would have joined the group, Nichols said, but Buxton is expected to be a Top 10 pick in June’s MLB Draft.
“I’m really excited about going to Georgia for summer classes, but my main focus is out here right now,” Nichols said. “Getting a region championship, maybe get deep in the playoffs and compete for state.”
After a 4-4 start to the season, Lee County — which returns to the diamond tonight at home to face a bigger Class AAAAA Lowndes program — has won eight of its last nine and needs just one win against Thomas County Central in Friday’s doubleheader to clinch the Region 1-AAAA subdivision before the region playoffs.
Nichols’ bat has never wavered, even during the team’s March cold spell, although he doesn’t see nearly as many fastballs as he once did. That’s not a problem, though, because if Nichols can put eyes on it, he can also put aluminum to it.
“You’ve just got to see it and hit,” he said.