First Posted: 1/15/2009
PEMBROKE -- Jason Carver always wanted to be the big fish. After four seasons as a starter on The University of North Carolina at Pembroke baseball team, he has hardly floundered in that pursuit, carving himself a niche as the Braves' best all-around player.
Coming out of Mebane High School, Carver was anything but a hot prospect. He had offers from East Carolina and UNC-Wilmington, but only a roster spot was guaranteed, not money. It all smelled rather fishy to Carver.
So he cast his line in Division II waters, though he didn't expect to end up on UNCP's hook. Then-manager Danny Davis was scouting two of Carver's teammates during his senior season, but he noticed a scrawny first baseman with a good stick. An offer -- with money -- was pitched, and Carver bit, though not until about mid-summer.
“I always wanted to play in Wilmington, I always wanted to play in that conference, but I decided to come here,” Carver said. “They say, 'Do you want to be a small fish in a big city, or a big fish in a small city?' That was the big thing for me.”
When Carver arrived, he was moved to left field, where he felt like a fish out of water. His arm wasn't up to the task, and he thinks it's why he needed shoulder surgery following the season, causing him to be redshirted the next year. Carver bulked up, though, and grabbed the starting role in center field when he returned. He hasn't relinquished it.
This season, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound southpaw has thrived in his role as a co-captain. He's UNCP's leadoff hitter and table-setter, leading the Braves in seven offensive categories. In the field, Carver has made one error and possesses a surprisingly strong gun.
“I feel like he's our most reliable player,” UNCP manager Paul O'Neil said. “Most reliable in every sense as far as defense, offense, baserunning, just the total package.”
O'Neil cannot overstate the importance of Carver to UNCP's success, which has been hard to come by lately. The Braves are 20-22-1 overall and 8-16 in Peach Belt Conference play.
“When he has a good day, we usually win. And when he doesn't have a good day -- I don't want to put any pressure on him -- we usually don't succeed,” O'Neil said. “He's been a good leader on the field and off the field for us. That's a very big hole for us to fill next year.”
The statistics back up O'Neil's claim somewhat. Through UNCP's first 24 conference games, Carver has a .350 average in 16 losses and a .364 average in the eight wins. The difference has been more dramatic over the last 10 league contests (through April 7), eight of which the Braves lost. Carver hit .316 during the stretch.
In the Braves' two non-conference games last week, both losses, Carver went 2-for-10.
“I feel like some of the reason why we're not winning now is because I haven't been finding the basepaths of late,” Carver said. “I've been swinging at a lot of bad pitches and getting myself out. If I get on the paths, most of the time we win. If I don't get on the paths, we lose.”
Chances are, Carver's slump won't last for long. He's too hard a worker for that to happen. Someone his size playing two such central roles -- center fielder and leadoff hitter -- can't afford to let the down times undo all his efforts. After all, it's been his ability to swim against adverse currents like coaches' slights and a bum shoulder that has drawn the respect of his teammates.
“It's just his work ethic, and the way he carries himself,” catcher/first baseman Josh Robinson said. “He's developed into a great baseball player.”
Carver's work ethic is unreproachable, both on and off the field. When he's not spending countless hours in the batting cage, he's earning credits toward his double major of business management and marketing. He figured that with an extra year of schooling available, he might as well make use of it.
“Jason's never been a real vocal guy, in-your-face, he's always been one who likes to lead through example,” said O'Neil. “He goes out and he's always one of the first ones to come to practice, one of the last ones to leave. Always hustles on and off the field. He does all the little things, and when somebody's not doing what they need to do, he'll call them aside and say, 'Hey, you need to step it up a notch.'
“I think he's done a great job of that.”
Always tugging at the back of Carver's mind is the “what if?” What if he had gone to a Division I program? He said he would like to find out, but he doesn't have any regrets about his decision.
“I feel like I would have gotten some playing time in my upperclassman years in a Division I (program),” he said. “I wouldn't know how to compare myself on a Division I level, but I'd like to see. I think I've done a pretty good job at this level.”
Despite what Carver's done at UNCP, whether or not he can excel at an even higher level is uncertain at best. He will likely try out for an independent minor league team up north, though his first priority is securing his diploma next month and finding a job in the Raleigh area.
Hitting is what got Carver to college and is his strongest trait still. His average has been near the top of the PBC charts all season, and he has a knack for delivering clutch hits, as indicated by his .429 average with runners in scoring position. He's got some pop as well, hitting two homers this year and many a wall-denting double or triple.
“I don't really think I'm that strong, I just think the main thing for me is that I'm quick and I transfer my weight, drive up through the ball,” Carver said. “That's how I get a lot of doubles and a lot of hard-hit balls.”
If he's to succeed in the minors, he'll have to prove all over again that he's stronger and better than convention states. Carver won't be a big fish this time, and pro ball is a big city, a big pond. A trip to the majors is probably a pipe dream, but it sure would make for one heck of a fishin' story.
Brad Locke can be reached at 739-4322, Ext. 119 or by e-mail at [email protected]