Epping enjoying the fruits of his labor

EUGENE- During the winter prior to his senior season at the University of New Orleans, Mike Epping's manager, Tom Walter, sent the entire team an email to serve as motivation for the Privateer's upcoming season.

The note read, ‘What have you done today to help us win a championship?' "It was a blanket email out the team, basically," Walter said. "You know, it was a rhetorical question…It was just one of those things coaches do to get the idea of the spring season."

Epping, however, was happy to fill his coach in on his workout routine.

"Ep was the only one that responded, and he sent me a list of, like, 25 things he had done that day," Walter remarked. "He had taken soft toss, he was hitting bottle caps, he was using the thunder stick. He just sent me a whole laundry list of things that he was doing on a day-to-day basis to help make himself a better player, and he really did it through hard work. That's what makes it a great story is not only is he a first-class guy and somebody you just root for because he's a good person but … he got the most out of (his) ability through his work ethic."

That type of work ethic has paid off nicely so far for Epping, the Padres' 13th pick in 2006.

At the end of June – 12 games into the season – he ranked fifth in the league and second on the Emeralds behind Craig Cooper with a .348 batting average. He sat atop the league leaders in runs scored with 13 and was tied for second with 16 total hits.

Epping recorded at least one hit in 11 straight games to open the season. He's had multiple hit games in six of those 11.

When asked what impresses him most about Epping, Emerald's manager Doug Dascenzo said, "I think the easiness of his game."

"He's really a nice, smooth player," Dascenzo revealed. "He doesn't do anything max-effort. And he's just really fun to watch."

But possibly the most valuable part of Epping's game is his base-stealing ability. He currently sits in the top ten in the Northwest League in that category, tied with teammate Matt Antonelli with six stolen bases.

"He's got above average speed, and he has great anticipation, and I think those are obviously two elements that a person can have success with as far as stealing bases," Dascenzo said of Epping.

Batting as the leadoff man, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Epping said he relishes the chance to help his team by being a threat on the base paths.

"It definitely helps a lot," Epping said. "It gets the pitcher thinking not only just about the hitter – maybe send some of that focus from the hitter to the base runner and maybe that's when he'll make a mistake and hopefully we can capitalize on it."

Case-in-point: Epping stole both second and third in the first inning and scored the game's first run to set the tone in an 8-4 victory against Spokane earlier this season. He was a perfect three-for-three on the base paths in that game as the Emeralds stole five bases as a team.

So far this season, Epping has been caught stealing twice in eight tries.

"It starts with picking your situations," Epping said. "I don't just run every time I get on base. Just trying to pick the right spots and so far I have been successful."

That success may stem from his work to improve in that area during the summer.

"I felt the big turning point for his career was this summer," Walter said. "He went out and really worked on stealing bases, and I think that really changed his whole game because, previous to that, Mike was kind of a singles hitter who didn't steal bases and those guys don't really have a place at the next level. He turned himself into a base stealer…and he took pressure off himself to hit with power. He really found his identity as a player this summer when he learned to run the bases."

Epping, an Oklahoma City native, comes to Eugene after spending two successful years with Walter at the University of New Orleans. He previously attended Texas Christian University but decided to transfer to become an every day player for the Privateers in the Sun Belt Conference.

Walter first learned of Epping and his intention to transfer from a friend who had coached against Epping. The friend told Walter, then a first-year coach, that he must get Epping because he "had a chance."

It was a good thing Walter paid attention.

"It's funny because when Mike first got to us, he struggled initially," Walter recalled. "Over the first two-thirds of the season in Mike's first season with us, he struggled. He was hitting about .230 and actually below .200 for a while."

Then came the turning point for Epping. He hit a grand slam against New Orleans' rival, Loyola, and from then on, he was a force to be reckoned with.

"It was a big watershed moment in his career because, after he hit that and won the game for us. I think he just relaxed and let his ability take over," Walter said. "The last third of the season, he was one of our best players and had a great summer in Virginia. Then last year, from the first day of the season until the last day of the season, he was absolutely our best player and, obviously, one of the nation's best players.

Epping finished his first year at New Orleans by hitting .270, with 18 RBIs and two stolen bases.

The difference from that year to his senior year was night and day. Epping became the program's first player to hit .400 since 1987 and added a team-leading 58 RBIs. He also stole a team-high 42 bases in 49 attempts, as the Privateers won 10 more games in 2006 than in 2005.

Epping was honored for his outstanding season by the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA), which named him to the All-South Central Region first team. He was also named to the ABCA/Rawlings All-American second team.

In addition, Epping was voted to the All-Sun Belt team, a list that included current Emeralds David Freese, who played at South Alabama and Tom King, who played at Troy.

"I was really impressed with both those guys this year," Walter said of Freese and King. "David Freese was, I thought, the best all-around player in the league because he hit with power and was just a dangerous hitter. And Tommy King, what can I say about him? I mean he made every play and an NCAA record for doubles in a season. I mean those two guys are special, special players. So I have no doubts that if those three guys are on a ball club, with any pitching, they've got a good chance to win a championship."

Freese, a third baseman and the Padres' ninth round selection this season, was the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year last season.

In addition to setting the NCAA record for doubles, King, a shortstop, was a Sun Belt Conference first team selection and Newcomer of the Year after transferring from South Carolina. He was drafted in the eighth round this year.

Epping said he is thankful to be teaming with Freese and King rather than facing them.

"They're really good guys and great players, so I'm just happy to be playing with guys like that," Epping said. "Once I saw the draft come through and saw we were on the same team, I knew we'd have a good team."

Freese echoed that sentiment and recalled memories of facing Epping in college.

"It was awesome. Well, not for us – he was a tough out," Freese said. "He's a great ballplayer – he's a five-tool guy, he does it all."

But Epping's career at New Orleans was not always defined by success or baseball alone. In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, causing an approximated $75 billion in damage. Epping and his teammates were forced to spend the fall semester in Mexico but when they returned, the field was not ready and they were forced to relocate again, this time to Mobile, Ala. where they played their first 20 games.

Both Epping and Walter described that time as an eye-opening experience – one in which baseball took a backseat to the suffering and devastation that occurred. But through it all, Walter believes there was a silver lining for Epping as he embarks on his professional career.

"I think the hardest thing for players to deal with once they get to professional baseball is failure," Walter said. "There's going to be a time in Mike's career where he struggles on the field. It happens to every professional baseball player. Derek Jeter led the South Atlantic League in errors one year. So from the Barry Bonds and the Babe Ruth's of the world on down, they experience failure at the lower levels, and how they deal with that adversity, kind of determines whether they're going to succeed at the major league level. And Mike has already had a heavy dose of that. Not that you can directly relate the Hurricane to failure but, point being, he's already struggled with adversity, dealt with it, and overcome it. So, the inevitable 0-for-20 slump that comes for every minor leaguer is not going to have as big of an effect on Mike Epping as it will on the average minor league player."

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