BRISTOL - When Franklin Jennings first met Sam Loda nearly three years ago, he could already tell there was a certain work ethic Loda carried with him.
Jennings, then a senior on the CCSU baseball team, greeted Loda as he came to the Blue Devils’ facilities on a recruiting trip from East Haven High School.
Loda didn’t talk much. He was kind of quiet, Jennings remembers. But soon after leaving the complex, Loda followed Jennings on Instagram, and that’s when he left an impression.
“The first thing I saw [on his Instagram] was a video of his swing,” said Jennings, now in his first year as a CCSU assistant. “I could tell he was gonna be a kid who works really hard and was a kid who could play at this level and potentially play at the next level. I think he’s gonna be a next-level player, for sure. In my opinion, taking a chance on a kid like Sammy is a no-brainer.”
That’s what is headed to Muzzy Field this summer. A potential pro.
Loda, a sophomore catcher for CCSU, will be joining the Bristol Blues after signing with manager Ronnie Palmer’s club on Jan. 12.
After the Blue Devils graduated two catchers from the 2018 roster, Loda came into the 2019 campaign with a chance to show his worth as the starting backstop.
It started out bad - 1-for-24 with just one run and four strikeouts in the first six games, bad.
But that’s when Loda’s diligence paid off. He didn’t let it affect him, despite the frustrations of hitting balls hard right at defenders, sending ropes straight into their gloves.
“He started out the year pretty rough,” Jennings said. “When I say he started out rough, he was finding barrels every day, but he just didn’t have anything to show for it. He was super frustrated about it, but he’s bought into our approach. He kept swinging and stuck with our approach - keep swinging, keep finding barrels and they’re gonna fall. He stuck with the approach, and they started to fall. That’s how baseball works.”
And that’s what Jennings and the Blue Devil staff work on - having the same approach every day, never too up; never too down. So Loda stayed after it and despite the poor start, didn’t make any tweaks to his swing.
“We had a bunch of conversations, and at one point he asked me what I had to do to buy a hit,” Jennings said. “But he’s kept at his approach. He’s kept swinging it. … The kid works endlessly. He works every day.”
After the team’s 3-3 start, Loda in the next game went 3-for-4 with an RBI, a walk and two runs scored in a loss to Kansas on March 12. He had a couple unproductive performances after that, but after getting his first day off during a trip to Fairfield on March 26, Loda began to … unload.
Four multi-hit days in the next five games followed, and during a weekend series against Mount St. Mary’s on April 27 and 28, the sophomore exploded. He finished the Blue Devils’ unbeaten three-game set 9-for-18 with two RBI and four runs.
“The week leading into the Mount series, he was swinging it very well,” Jennings said. “Then against Mount, he just broke out and ever since he’s been locked in. He’s been finding barrels, been getting hits, and he’s been loving the ride he’s been on.”
Loda is now slashing .281/.351/.349 with 41 total hits (seven doubles), one home run, 21 RBI and 26 runs scored in the 38 games he’s started behind the plate for the Blue Devils (21-19, 11-7 Northeast Conference). He is just 0.02 points behind the team lead in average for players with at least 100 at-bats. He is also ranked first in hits, tied for second in runs and doubles and is alone in second for RBI.
His most impressive stat line, however, remains omitted from that list.
Loda sees the ball as well as anyone in the Blue Devil lineup. He has a remarkable 21:16 strikeout-to-walk ratio. During that breakout series against Mount St. Mary’s, he struck out just three times.
“That is one of the tweaks we worked on early,” Jennings said. “He doesn’t really go out of the strike zone a lot, which is why he doesn’t punch out a lot. He gets himself in good counts. When we get into a good count, a 2-0 or 3-1 count, be more selective and get a pitch you can really drive. … He’s really bought into getting pitches he can handle and getting pitches he hits well, and not missing them.”
On Tuesday, Loda was again locked in, finding himself in a pair of 3-1 counts. He turned one of those into a double off the right-center wall and the other he hit to the warning track.
It was yet another example of Loda using his baseball IQ - some of which can be attributed to his experience as a catcher - to come to the plate prepared and stick to his plan.
“He’s a sophomore. He’s young. He’s gonna make mistakes, but he’s gonna play the game hard. What we talk about a lot is playing the game hard. He’s gonna reward you, and it’s rewarded Sammy pretty well as of late,” Jennings said. “The way he’s swinging the bat, he’s locked in right now. So he just wants to stay locked in.”
On defense, Loda has also shined behind the dish, where he consistently is able to cut down potential base stealers.
“[His defense] has just been a steady ride for him all year, really. It’s really hard to run on him,” Jennings said. “I will say he’s gotten a lot better at calling games. Our pitching coach Pat Hall has allowed him to call a lot of our games, and him and our guys are on the same page, essentially all the time. He’s really managed our pitching staff really well.”
The Blues will get to enjoy Loda play this summer, one in which Jennings says Loda’s “extremely hard work” will be on display.
“I’ll tell you right now, he’s one of my favorites to watch and talk to every day,” Jennings said. “When he hits a double, and I go get his batting gloves at second base, he’s all fired up. It’s fun to understand where he came from and everything he’s done to get to where he is.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org