MIDLOTHIAN – In all his years playing baseball, Donovan Murphy recalls never having been a cleanup hitter before this summer.
But as the St. Christopher’s alum entered the 2019 American Legion Baseball season having switched to Powhatan-based Post 201 after the Legion team he was previously with – Post 186 – disbanded, his new head coach Eric Mead talked to him about setting the example and being one of the leaders for those young players.
“Coming into it, I was just trying to be a leader on the team” – Murphy said – “show them how to play the right way.”
And by gaining 20 pounds in between starting school at Virginia Tech and beginning the new Legion season, Murphy with the added weight had a lot more hitting power to complement his mindset that, playing for a younger team, he would have to do his best to put his team in situations to win ballgames.
“Getting in those 1-2-3 hitters in was going to be important,” Murphy said of batting fourth in the lineup. “My goal was to get as many RBIs as I could, trying to put those guys in – not necessarily hitting home runs, but with the power I had, the ball would just go.”
Twenty-six runners came home off of Murphy’s bat in less than 15 games this season. Six of the pitches that he swatted exited the ballpark as home runs.
In order to push himself, the Midlothian son set goals that would be very hard for him to reach, from aiming for double-digit home runs and 35 RBIs to trying to bat .700.
Still, his incendiary .575 regular-season batting average was not just an achievement in itself...
...it also helped him achieve Player of the Year honors in American Legion’s District 11.
“It was a great honor – I haven’t gotten a Player of the Year/MVP-type award since playing on the little field,” he said. “But it felt good to be recognized for all the hard work I’ve put in both on the field and in the weight room, and just to be recognized playing with guys...I’ve played baseball with since I was little; it was a great honor for that reason.”
The six-foot-three rising sophomore at Virginia Tech – who this year aged out of the American Legion program – was a fixture on the baseball field this summer, drawing praise from Post 201 head coach Eric Mead for his dedication to coming to games and practices.
“Donovan Murphy is just one heck of a baseball player,” Mead said after Post 201’s final game of the 2019 season. “It’s sad to lose him – I wish I had a pile of him…just a phenomenal baseball player.”
In high school - after overcoming various setbacks ranging from spraining his ACL one year and tearing his MCL his sophomore season to breaking a thumb and needing stitches after getting hit in the face with a ball, Murphy enjoyed his healthiest and best high school baseball season during his senior year with St. Christopher’s Baseball. He not only helped his Saints win the 2018 VISAA State Championship, but he also achieved a goal he had been pushing himself to attain since sophomore year: Make First Team All-State.
At the plate, he went from always hitting opposite field to trying to get base hits and get on base any way he could to moving his teammates over and getting them home.
“Senior year, it became more mental, like: Okay, what can I do to get this runner in?” Murphy said. “It wasn’t as much as: What can I do? It’s: What can I do to help the team?
“And then if I hit a ball out, great.”
All-around, hitting – which has always been the part of the game that Murphy has loved the most – got a lot better for him this summer. His power was better. When pitchers were throwing to him outside, he was seeing it a lot earlier in the season. He could take balls the other way a lot better than he used to. Murphy knew he could take anything on the middle inner-half of the plate to the gaps or to the right field fence.
“The game just slowed down a lot more,” he said, “so I know mentally what I need to do when I go up to the plate.”
Getting back into the game, Murphy worked on tweaking his swing here and there. He started the summer strong with Post 201 before he struggled for a couple games midway through the season, but then he corrected his stance from starting way too low on his back foot to standing more vertical with less weight on the back leg to start.
He also talked to one of Post 201’s coaches, Parker Mead, about fixing his swing, and that’s when it clicked for him: There was no need to worry – he just needed to go up there, relax, do what he could and not stress too much about it.
“After that, everything clicked back to where it was,” he said, “and it was back to playing well and having even more fun.”
After joining Post 201’s team, Murphy got the closest he’s ever gotten to the American Legion district championship game – another goal of his – when he and the Dirt Sox this year defeated Post 361 on July 24 in tournament play, but fell one game shy of going to the championship game in a July 26 loss to eventual runners-up Post 137.
He’s currently attending Virginia Tech, where right now he’s considering double-majoring in Business Information Technology and Finance. He attempted to walk-on to the baseball team his freshman season, and while he ultimately didn’t make it onto the team, he said the coach said it might be a different story if it were another year.
For the state champion, it’s tough at times not being able to play in college – he’s definitely missed the competition. He’s missed competing for something.
That’s one of the reasons he wanted to play Legion this summer.
His focus was on having fun – he had no other commitments and he loves the game of baseball, so he just went out there to play.
His thought was: “Why not go out to practice on a summer day, get better at baseball?”
“The games are a lot more fun when you’re winning and playing well than when you’re losing and not playing good,” he added.
While he’s had people say to him that he should try and walk-on again, Murphy has given it some thought, but not a ton. He’s not really sure yet what he’ll do in that regard – he might decide to play club ball at Tech just to go out there, play baseball and have a good time.
“At this point it’s pretty much just a sport I just want to play for leisure and have fun with,” he said. “But there’s some times that things could change.”
With his final American Legion season in the books, Murphy moves forward with there being questions as to what he’ll do with baseball in the future, but he answered Coach Mead’s call to become a leader to his Post 201 teammates in a big way. He stood out amongst a talented selection of high school and college student-athletes in the district, and he did so while getting to experience sort of that last hoorah playing both against and alongside players he’s played with for a long time.
“As far as Player of the Year, it was just a great honor,” he said, “and a great way to go out for Legion.”