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Baseball is Fun with Matthew Mika

 

By: Nathan DeSutter

Between Matthew Mika’s addiction to cookies and cream ice cream, affinity for chasing fireflies with a baseball bat, and constant energy, dance moves, and jokes to lighten up the clubhouse, the Chinooks wild, curly haired second baseman could easily come across as a goof off during a first impression. 

But, Northwoods League pitchers have quickly learned that his on the field persona enjoys a different style of fun—fun that finds joy in distracting, stealing and causing general turmoil all over the field. And, that the speedy lead-off hitter—currently hitting .359 (28-78) with 6 doubles, 13 walks, and 6 strikeouts—despite his 5 foot 10 inch, 170-pound frame, may be the biggest, scariest, and most important piece to Lakeshore’s power-packed lineup. 

Similar to his favorite Marvel superheroes, Mika flips a switch when he crosses those white lines, and he morphs himself into an alter ego who’s a field-spreading, line-drive hitter that terrorizes on the basepaths, and is a defensive highlight waiting to happen.

“He’s a spark plug,” said Chinooks outfielder, Joe Duncan. “I compare him to (2016 Cubs) Dexter Fowler. He’s pretty funny. A nice life in the dugout.”

However, what impressed Duncan the most wasn't Mika’s propensity for positivity or attempts at cheering up downtrodden teammates (like that time he hugged Daniel DeSimone and said, “Everything will be ok, I gave you a like on Instagram,” after a tough loss to Rockford) it was Mika’s next-level mentality on the field that really caught his eye. 

“Mika’s unreal, he can do it all, and it’s exciting,” Duncan said. “He plays really hard, and I admire that. I see someone that plays hard; it makes everyone else want to play hard. It brings everyone else together.”

As the Chinooks everyday leadoff hitter, Mika specializes in bringing things together. Mostly, those things are runs. Since he debuted on Tuesday, June 13th in Kalamazoo, the Chinooks offense has averaged an extra 1.85 runs per game, and he—by himself—has scored an average of 1.25 runs per game. 

“To me, he’s the picture perfect leadoff hitter,” said Chinooks third baseman, Jacob Richardson. "He gets on base, gives pitchers hell when he gets on base, and he’s a great hitter whose got a great eye and is great defensively. There’s no way we could play the way we are [a 6-4 record in their last 10 games] without him.”

Richardson’s right, pitchers are definitely feeling the fiery burn of Mika’s devilishly cunning baserunning. So far, he’s swiped 15 bags—just 8 off of Marcus Still’s (Willmar Stingers) league leading 23. However, Still’s played in an extra 9 games, and if we gave Mika 9 more games at his current stolen base average, he’d have at least 21 if not more for his season total. 

“[Baserunning] is 100 percent my favorite thing,” Mika said. “If I’m not stealing, I love to be in the pitchers head. It gives hitters the opportunity to get a fastball, get a mistake—a curveball or off-speed pitch up they can do some damage with.”

But, it’s more than sheer speed that’s made Mika such a threat. Instead, a baserunning strategy taught by his UCF coaches has taken him over the top. 

“You cut your normal lead in half, and you do a little hop when he comes set to try and time it up,” he said. “We practice it every day. It’s trying to get timing to get good jumps.”

So, if you’re at Kapco Park this summer and you see Mika hopping around to distract pitchers, you’ll know he’s employing his patented strategy. And, it’s that strategy, along with his incredible base running intelligence that has led to some of the most amazing plays of the Lakeshore summer. 

On June 26th against Green Bay, Mika was at third when he noticed the catcher was lackadaisical in his delivery back to the pitcher. So, he timed it up and safely managed a straight steal of home. Or, on July 1st at Rockford, Mika—at second base— got a great read off a high chopper to the shortstop, and without hesitation,  rounded third and came home to score before the Rivets even knew what hit them. 

While brilliant, they’re all a part of a game Mika likes to play on the field called, how fast can I get to third base. 

“I try to time myself,” he said. “I go off pitches. I get to first, first pitch I try to steal second, and I try to steal third the next pitch.” 

Currently, his summer record is two pitches after he stole second and third on back to back pitches on June 30th against Kalamazoo. Then, two pitches later, he scored on Joe Duncan groundout that ended up being the only run of the game for both teams. 

Those little quirks—a game within a game—is what makes Mika so enjoyable to watch, and it’s an attitude that stems from a phrase that his Dad pounded in his head as he was growing up, “Baseball is fun.”

“My dad was always hard on me growing up, but he molded me into the ballplayer I am now and the person I am now,” Mika said. “He’s always told me that it was a game and this game is all about failure and this game could easily stress you out, and the only way you could not be stressed out is to remember it’s a game and have fun with it.”

“When I’m loose, I feel that everyone else is looser. It’s a good environment for the dugout, and it puts everyone else in a good mood,” he said. 

It’s what inspired him to draw smiley faces all over his wood bat, or go up to the ice cream stand and ask for a free cone—despite its lack of pregame nutrition— before the game from concessions worker and host family member, Katelyn Miller. 

“I have [starting pitcher] Zach Spears staying with me,” she said. “Over fathers day, my dad invited Zach to have a few friends over for a big BBQ, and Zach brought over Matthew [Mika] and Brendan [McGuigan]. He came over, we hung out, and the next day he asked for ice cream.”

Now, it’s become a full-fledged ritual. Mika always has ice cream in his hands before a game, and when I asked about the recent late-inning comebacks and run-scoring, his answer was simply, “Trying to get that ice cream. Trying to get the game over with and get some ice cream before they close it down.”

Of course, all the credit for the Chinooks recent comebacks and double digit run outbursts of 16, 11, 17, and 15 over the past week don’t rest solely on Mika’s shoulders. The bigs bats of Duncan, Richardson, Mika’s college teammate at UCF, Rylan Thomas, and lefty slugger, Nick Gatewood, have all done more than their fair share of damage along the way. 

Thomas, who arrived the same day as Mika and has played 20 total games, has slugged  4 homers and put up an astounding 26 RBI, and Gatewood, who leads the team with a .360 batting average, has 3 homers and 28 RBI of his own. 

“That part of the order, when you’re having that may guys who seeing it well at the same time; you can't really pitch around anybody,” Richardson said. “Because if you pitch around, then you got the next one hitting with guys on base for me or Nick [Gatewood] or Rylan [Thomas].”

What might be helping out is a southern connection. Mika and Thomas are from Florida, Gatewood from Georgia, and Richardson from Arkansas.  Regardless, all five are finding their roles as dominant forces in the Northwoods. 

“It’s always good to have those guys in front of you and behind you, because they can protect you and them vice versa for them,” Thomas said. “It creates a pretty firm lineup, and you can score a lot of runs that way.”

But, when you talk to all four middle of the order sluggers about what’s making this offense click and reach its full potential, their answers reverberate in one resounding chorus; “Matthew Mika.”

The hope for the Chinooks, they can take this offensive momentum—paired with an improved bullpen— into the second half to improve on their 17-16 overall record and contend for a playoff spot.