Sports

Healthy again, this Belleville East grad is turning into a college baseball star

Belleville East graduate Drew Millas leads the Missouri State Bears in batting average, RBIs and on-base percentage
Belleville East graduate Drew Millas leads the Missouri State Bears in batting average, RBIs and on-base percentage Missouri State athletics

Hip surgery on Oct. 26 had Belleville East graduate Drew Millas concerned about his sophomore season at Missouri State University.

But the switch-hitting catcher has dismissed those anxieties, leading the Bears (27-13) with a .342 average, 45 RBIs and a .427 on-base percentage in 40 games.

"After my hip surgery, hitting was kind of a focal point for me," Millas said. "It's developed really well, and now I'm trying to get back into the swing of things defensively."

That's represented the most significant challenge for the 20-year-old Millas, the son of Andy and Nel Millas, during a season that's going down as his best at any level.

"I still need to get used to pitch-calling in different situations again, but that will come easily," Drew Millas said. "After surgery, I didn't get a lot of chances to catch and get behind the dish and see pitches. Now I'm starting to get accustomed to it again.

"I still can feel my legs aren't as in shape as they should be — or as they were. It's hard, but it's something I have to battle. It's adversity. I just have to take it on like I've been doing."

Longtime Missouri State coach Keith Guttin has been amazed by Millas' progress.

"He missed the offseason of lifting and all the individual work," said Guttin, whose team sits atop the Missouri Valley Conference standings. "But he got released for practice in mid-January and just picked it right up. He's never fallen off, really."

Guttin remembers the injury feeling like a major setback for Millas and the Bears.

"He caught a lot as a freshman and had some nagging, minor injury-type stuff at the end of our season last year, which went until June," Guttin said. "He decided to stay in Springfield, and he worked out religiously, lifting under the direction of our strength coach. He put on 20 pounds of muscle and went from 180 to 200 (pounds).

"When he came back in the fall, it was a different physical guy. The ball came off the bat a lot harder. The strength work gave him more confidence. He was a year older, he had experienced it already. He started to swing the bat really good in the fall. Then he got hurt."

Millas will never forget the agony of the injury, which occurred late during a practice.

"I went down and felt a huge, tense, sharp pain in my right hip," said Millas, who was quickly attended to by a team trainer. "We stretched it out a little bit and were like, 'OK, maybe you just tweaked something.' A week later, I felt it again."

An MRI revealed a completely torn labrum.

"I had bone spurs in there, too, an extra bone growth that shaved my labrum down and eventually tore it. That's how it started," Millas said.

It was no small matter.

"Especially for a catcher that has to block (pitches) and move laterally very quickly," said Guttin, in his 36th season. "We had to take it slow (this spring). He was able to hit and DH before he could catch in games. His arm was a little tender and he had a slight hamstring issue, but he's worked his way through all that stuff and continued to hit consistently.

"He's kind of a gap-to-gap guy, but when he gets it right and gets it in the air, he's going to hit a few home runs."

Another Drew Millas.jpg
Drew Millas has recovered from a hip injury to be one of Missouri State's most consistent baseball players this season. Missouri State athletics

Huge gains

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Millas batted .224 in 51 games, including 42 starts, as a true freshman last season. He had seven doubles, one home run, 29 RBIs and a .281 on-base percentage.

His improvement this year has been profound. Millas is the Bears' No. 3 hitter, and he's also contributed nine doubles and four home runs. His 24 walks rank third on the team.

Millas has 14 multi-hit games and has enjoyed four-hit games against East Carolina, Oregon State and Arkansas.

"The difference from me this year to last year is the mental side of the game — my confidence level," said Millas, a marketing sales major. "I haven't really changed anything mechanics-wise. What's really clicked has been my mindset. It's such a mental game — more so than any other game. Fail 70 percent of the time and you're a Hall of Famer. It's crazy to think about how many times you fail and have to turn around from that.

"You can't let struggles get to you that much. If they do, that's when you really start slipping and struggling for a long period of time. You're going to have struggles. Putting them to an end quickly is the mindset you've got to have."

Millas said being "fastball-efficient" has fueled his numbers. A keener eye is putting him into better hitting counts, and when he gets a fastball he can handle, he's not missing it.

"I've been seeing the ball well lately in terms of taking close pitches that I normally swung at in the past," Millas said. "That's a part of my success. In terms of RBIs, just scoring runs for my team is very important for me, and when there are runners on and when I know it's important, I feel like I lock in that much more. It's weird. I feel at the plate like I almost can't get out when there's runners on. It's kind of a weird feeling that I get. I can't really explain it."

Neither can Guttin. He just sits back and enjoys it. Millas is batting .480 (24-for-50) with runners in scoring position.

"His batting average with runners on has been very good," Guttin said. "He's been a clutch hitter, that's for sure. We have another guy that's very, very good named Jeremy Eierman, who was a Preseason All-American. He hits second and Drew has been very good protection for him."

Millas is a natural left-handed hitter who worked hard last summer to shore up his swing from the right side of the plate. It's worked. He's batting .417 (20-for-48) against left-handers. Against right-handers, he's hitting .307 (31-for-101).

Millas credits his mom for helping him become a switch-hitter. Formerly Nel Patton, she was a star basketball player at Belleville West who played at Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State) from 1984-88. Drew's grandfather is Larry Patton, who was the Belleville East baseball coach from 1966-93.

"I've been a switch-hitter since I was little," he said. "My mom always emphasized it with me. Her and I would go out in the front yard and she would throw me underhand balls with the little corkscrew golf balls and I would take this long, corked bat and hit from both sides."

Millas said Matt Lawson, the Bears' hitting instructor, has helped him become more sound with his mindset and approach. Millas also studies big-league hitters like the Los Angeles Dodgers' Cody Bellinger (left-handed) and the Houston Astros' Jose Altuve (right-handed).

"I like watching clips of Bellinger," Millas said. "He's tall and lanky, with a lot of leverage on his swing. I also watch Altuve and how he always stresses (using) his lower half. His lower half is insane. Then catching-wise, I really enjoy Yadier Molina. I've looked up to him as long as I can remember. He's been my No. 1 guy growing up and being a Cardinals fan."

Millas and Hitt were a combined 7-for-8 with six RBIs in Belleville East's 9-0 baseball win Friday over Althoff.

Getting defensive

Molina also has been a defensive inspiration for Millas, whose quick release and strong arm prevent runners from taking liberties.

"The release is something all catchers can work on, just getting faster with it," Millas said. "I've always been blessed with decent arm strength. That's been playing well at this level. I think I'm getting better and better every day at calling the game and getting used to the flow of the game at the collegiate level."

Guttin said there's no doubt Millas has progressed as a defender.

"I think he's a better catcher now than he was a year ago," Guttin said. "That's experience, maturity, confidence. He always had a strong arm, good hands. You just don't see many catchers in college that are as athletic as he is."

Millas will play this summer in the Cape Cod League. If he remains healthy and continues to make strides during his junior season at Missouri State, he could be drafted in 2019.

"That's the ultimate goal," Millas said. "I'm starting to see it almost become more of a reality. It will definitely be a dream come true. Hopefully, it's as early as possible.

"But I'm not trying to look at that right now. We're in the season and it's not close. Anything can happen between now and then."

Guttin said projecting players' stock in the draft is an inexact science.

"It's a hard thing to predict and project," he said. "What I saw was a guy that was a switch-hitter that was very athletic, particularly for a catcher. Those guys do get better as they get more mature, stronger, more confident. I don't know if anybody anticipated what we're seeing now, but it's sure good."

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665; @DavidMWilhelm
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