Preseason All-American living up to the hype

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The old adage “hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to do in sports,” has been a much-used phrase by many in the sports world, who see the challenges hitters have to deal with every time they step up to the plate.

Whether it’s facing a fastball at a high velocity, or the tricky curve balls and change-ups pitchers have in their repertoires, there is no doubt hitting at any level is a difficult test.

But, for those who combine natural ability and a strong work ethic, the daunting task of facing such pitchers becomes a little easier. One player who fits these criteria is CSUN junior first baseman Michael Paulk, who has already achieved tremendous heights in his career, including a record-setting hitting streak in 2004 and 2005.

Entering this season, Paulk was named to the pre-season All-American Team, and placed on the Wallace Watch List, an honor given to college baseball’s national Player of the Year. What led to the incredible pre-season accolades for Paulk was a breakout sophomore season, which included a .356 batting average and 17 homeruns, placing him in the top-10 of the Big West in seven major offensive categories.

However, the challenge facing Paulk going into his junior season was to live up to all the hype and build on the success he had already achieved.

The first baseman has certainly lived up to and exceeded all the expectations bestowed upon him, as Paulk just completed a record breaking 34-game hitting streak, the longest such streak in CSUN baseball history.

The tremendous streak eventually came to an end March 23 against Stony Brook, when he went 0-for-2. But, Paulk said during the streak, he was trying to concentrate on each at bat, and hit the ball hard somewhere.

“It was a special feeling during the streak, but I tried not to think or talk about it too much,” Paulk said. “I just wanted to take each at-bat at a time, and not worry about getting a hit.”

The one time he did worry about extending the hit record, it came back to haunt him. “I wasn’t thinking about it until my last at-bat, and that is when it all came to an end,” Paulk said.

Head coach Steve Rousey credits Paulk’s prolonged hitting prowess to his even-keeled demeanor and his ability to stay calm under pressure.

“Mike does not get too high or too low, and that is a real strength of his,” Rousey said. “He doesn’t let adversity affect him in a negative way to hinder his own abilities.”

Despite all the attention Paulk has received during the season, his focus continues to be on the team’s goals of winning the Big-West Conference and not on individual statistics. The unassuming leader just wants to be part of a winning team.

“I just want to contribute to winning games and eventually attaining the Big West Conference title,” Paulk said. “The way I help the team win is driving in runs when runners are in scoring position. That is my job.”

Certainly, Paulk has done his job all year long, driving in clutch runs while helping the Matadors move their record one game over .500 going into conference play. After struggling early in the season, Paulk’s prolonged hitting streak has catapulted his average to .327 through 24 games.

The junior said his effectiveness at the plate is directly related to the approach he takes when facing the opposition.

“Offensively, driving the ball up the middle is key for my success because staying in the center of the diamond prevents me from pulling off pitches,” Paulk said. “Hitting the ball hard up the middle was my mentality during the streak and continues to be when up at the plate now.”

Paulk’s natural abilities are noticeable to everyone who watches him, including Rousey.

“Michael has a tremendous work ethic,” Rousey said of Paulk. “He is a natural ball player, with great hand-eye coordination and fluid swing.”

His teammates also notice the special physical abilities Paulk possesses every time they take the field. Catcher and team leader Alberto Quintana is impressed by the ease with which the game comes to Paulk.

“He doesn’t look like he tries to hard,” Quintana said. “He just makes it look easy up there (at the plate). He is a natural.”

Paulk started playing baseball at age 5 and has never stopped. He said the sport has been a passion for him his whole life and he always enjoys playing the game.

In high school, Paulk developed into one of the best players in California, earning first team all-inland Valley honors at Upland. He finished his junior season with a .376 batting average and 29 RBI while recording an 8-3 record as a pitcher.

These numbers enticed two schools to recruit the native of San Diego — CSUN and Cal Poly. After choosing Northridge, Paulk’s presence has been strongly felt in the line-up, as he has contributed all three years to the rebuilding effort at CSUN.

As a freshman, Paulk started 44 games, hit 13 doubles and his 23 RBI were good enough for second on the team. From his freshman season on, Paulk has steadily improved, distinguishing himself as one of the best hitting prospects in the nation.

In fact, major league scouts have come to Northridge games to observe Paulk’s play. With all the attention he is receiving, Paulk said he does not want to get distracted by the scouts, and just wants to help the team win.

“I just want to take it one game at a time, and wherever my talent takes me, that is where I will end up,” Paulk commented about his professional aspirations. “All I want to do right now is help the team win the Big West.”

However, with the prospect of playing in the pros, Paulk can’t help but think about the future career he might have at the next level. Paulk said there are two steps he must take in order to become a major league player.

“The key for success is to continue to work hard and get better every day offensively and defensively,” Paulk said. With the dedication and natural ability Paulk possesses, the future seems limitless for this CSUN athlete.