LINCOLN — The hits would come. They had to.
The thought flashed through Ben Miller’s mind time and again. He’s a believer in process over results and the idea that baseball is a game where everything evens out eventually. He would rather swing a bat than talk about mechanics or plate approach. React, don’t dwell.
Yet there was Nebraska’s first baseman — a career .303 hitter in three full college seasons — holding a .141 average (10 for 71) 19 games into his senior year. Not since he was a high school freshman in an Iowa wood-bat summer league facing upperclassmen had he endured such a lengthy offensive drought.
And through it all, one of the more accomplished hitters in program history was still having the time of his life.
“I was having fun,” Miller said. “I don’t look at the results too much over the season. It’s more about a what-you-do-today mentality. Stats don’t really play a role in what you’re going to do today for the team or how you’re going to affect the game today. Each day was a new day, even when I was in a slump.”
Of course, the unproductive at-bats didn’t last. The left-hander went 2 for 3 against Kansas State on March 28 to start a 25-for-59 stretch (.424) entering Nebraska’s three-game series at league-leading Minnesota on Friday night. That streak included a 10-for-13 burst — including eight straight hits — against Maryland that earned him the Big Ten’s player of the week award.
Infielder Angelo Altavilla said his roommate’s secret weapon is an even-keeled nature that would stand out in a poker tournament.
“He carries himself the same exact way if he’s slumping or if he’s on a hot streak,” Altavilla said. “He doesn’t take it home with him.”
Mound or plate, same Miller
Hitter or pitcher? Miller wasn’t sure what he was growing up. Maybe that’s why Nebraska was the only school to offer him a baseball scholarship.
He emulated the left-handed swing of his older brother on a nearby sandlot and learned how to throw a fastball, slider and change-up from his father, Jeff. He joined Perfect Game — an organization that runs amateur traveling leagues and evaluates individual talent — in high school and often competed in entire tournaments as just a pitcher. That’s what happens when teammates like A.J. Puk (a left-hander picked sixth overall by Oakland in last year’s draft) and Keaton McKinney (now pitching at Arkansas) want to hit and man first base.
Miller just went about his business, glad for any chance to play.
“Nothing seems to faze him; he’s a guy who can perform pretty well under pressure,” Jeff Miller said. “He’s pretty reserved — ‘stoic’ is a word I’d use. He’s not real excitable or emotional. He always says baseball is a game where you’re going to have highs and lows. You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. That’s part of why he’s been successful, I think, is because he can put it behind him when he doesn’t do well.”
That didn’t happen often. By the time he was a senior at West Des Moines Valley, the lefty was regularly hitting with power to left-center field and had the kind of flat-bat swing and hand speed that inspired coach Brady Weber to tell Iowa and other programs about a special player they should check out. Miller also posted a 1.81 ERA in 54 innings en route to player of the year honors in the state’s biggest class.
Any doubts Weber harbored about Miller being mature enough to be a big-time college player disappeared in the days leading up to the first game of his senior year. Weber’s father — who served as a volunteer assistant with Valley — suffered a massive heart attack on the field during a practice. Miller and his family were the first to assure Weber that the life-threatening incident was far from a distraction and much more important than baseball.
On the field, the young and quiet standout with a “calm aggression” at the plate also led the team in professional demeanor. No bat throwing or helmet slams. From afar, Weber has seen that attitude pay dividends for his former player in 189 college games.
“There’s not many guys that can be that high-caliber that long and be that consistent,” Weber said. “I think his disposition has so benefited him. That’s what I’m most proud of with him. We say, ‘Stay locked in,’ and, ‘You don’t need to have highs and lows.’ He’s like the epitome of what you hope to see as a player and person play out.”
Staying positive despite slump
Miller didn’t need his education in accounting to conclude he was coming back to Nebraska.
After two days of the MLB draft last summer went without his name being called, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound player knew the financial rewards weren’t worth leaving college early. He made his stance known, but Pittsburgh selected him in the 32nd round.
In the depths of his slump this spring, Miller’s dream of pro baseball felt further away than ever. Yet even when his line drives were finding defenders, he reminded himself that he’d be content no matter what life has in store. Graduating in December and finding a job isn’t so terrible.
“I’m always a happy person — if something bad happens in my life, I try to find the positive in it,” Miller said. “I don’t want to say it’s an I-don’t-care approach because obviously I care about how I do, how I can help the team. But in baseball, sometimes when you’re not thinking about it and don’t care what the results are is when you do your best.”
Miller has his average up to .277 and is tied for the team lead with three home runs. He heads to Minnesota (22-10, 7-2) having tied a career-high 20-game on-base streak, and he became the 25th Husker to total 200 career hits earlier this month. He could finish around the top 10 if he continues at his current pace.
He’s also started three games on the mound — his only other pitching start came freshman year — and has allowed one earned run in eight innings. Against Creighton on April 4, he picked up his first career win while also socking a three-run homer.
“I personally think he was hitting the ball harder when he was stinking early in the year than he is now,” coach Darin Erstad said. “They’re just finding the holes. Yeah, he’s driven a couple balls, but Benny’s just got such a level head and he’s been there, he’s got a lot of experience.
“Guys like him, his numbers are going to be where they’re going to be at the end of the year. I’m just impressed with how well he’s played defensively, especially when he was struggling at the plate — and when I say ‘struggling,’ I mean not getting results.”
Indeed, Miller still has a bandaged scab on his right knee from when he made a diving play on a foul ball down the right-field line last week against Iowa. The newfound range has complemented his ability to reliably scoop low throws or make jumping grabs of liners in the field.
And it all comes from someone who was primarily a designated hitter until Nebraska tried him at the position last spring.
Miller said becoming a complete player is probably what he’s most proud of. The youngest of four children, he is the only one in his immediate or extended family known for athletic exploits. How can he have any regrets from a sport that has been so much fun and already given him so much?
“I wouldn’t say (my personality) is just a boring, flat line,” Miller said. “I get my work done. I try hard. My work ethic, I feel like, is what got me where I am. Obviously, I’m not the fastest and most athletic person, but I’ve worked on it. I wasn’t born with a special athletic gene that some people seem to have. It took me a lot more work than some people, but it’s paid off.”
Nebraska at Minnesota
6:30 p.m. Friday: RH Jake Hohensee (4-2, 3.06 ERA) vs. LH Lucas Gilbreath (4-0, 2.28)
2 p.m. Saturday: RH Derek Burkamper (2-3, 3.75) vs. RH Brett Schulze (3-2, 4.89)
1 p.m. Sunday: LH Jake Meyers (5-1, 2.54) vs. RH Toby Anderson (4-3, 6.75)
Where: Siebert Field, Minneapolis
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM