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Bixler providing power at or near top of Franklin College order

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ryan Bixler smacked two home runs in Franklin (Ind.) College’s win on Saturday, April 10 and was named Monday, April 12 as the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Week for the fourth time in his college baseball career.

It wasn’t the first case of multiple-mashing for the Logansport, Ind., native.

The righty-swinging fifth-year senior right fielder lofted two dingers May 10, 2018 against Manchester, two April 17, 2018 against Rose-Hulman, three April 16, 2019 at Rose-Hulman and two March 1, 2020 against Heidelberg.

On April 3, 2021 in Game 1 of a doubleheader at Franklin’s John P. McDowell Field against Hanover, Bixler’s eight-inning clout made the school’s all-time homer king.

The Grizzlies are 13-5 overall and in the HCAC heading into twin bills Saturday, April 17 vs. Rose-Hulman and Sunday, April 18 at Anderson.

The HCAC tournament (site to be determined) in May will include all 10 teams this year with the top five seeds serving as the home team in best-of-three series. A five-team finals will feature a double bye for the top seed. 

Bixler’s head-turning batting numbers so far for 2021 include a .449 (31-of-69) average with five homers, one triple, nine doubles, 25 runs batting, 31 runs scored and 5-of-6 in stolen bases. He owns a .576 on-base percentage and .826 slugging average.

“I look to do damage,” says Bixler of his offensive approach. “I just try to get the ball in the air or in the gap.”

While he has homered to center and right, he estimates that more than half of his long balls have gone out to left field.

During his Franklin days (Bixler played at Indiana Wesleyan in 2017 then transferred), he is hitting .354 (159-of-449) with 33 homers, nine triples, 34 doubles, 145 RBIs, 156 runs and is 32-of-38 in stolen bases. He sports a ..475 on-base percentage and .690 slugging average.

Bixler hit .321 with three homers, nine RBIs and 10 runs in eight games in 2020..

In 2019, he was first-team all-HCAC and third-team all-region by D3Baseball.

In 2018, he was the HCAC Offensive Player of the Year and conference tournament MVP. He was also honored as a third-team All-America pick by D3Baseball.com and was on the D3Baseball.com and American Baseball Coaches Association all-region.

Normally a 2-hole hitter, Bixler has been moved to the top of the Grizzlies order because of an injury to shortstop Quenton Welllington.

Bixler has had little trouble making the switch since he led off for four seasons at Lewis Cass Junior-Senior High School in Walton, Ind. (2013-16).

Is there a difference between 1 and 2?

“Maybe to start the game,” says Bixler. “As lead-off see as many pitches as you can for your teammates.”

Franklin coach Lance Marshall recruited Bixler while the player was in high school and welcomed him when he decided to transfer.

“Everyone respects him,” says Bixler of Marshall, FC head coach since the fall of 1997. “He knows how to win games.

“It’s a fun culture to be around for sure. This was the best fit for me.”

Bixler grew up playing baseball in Logansport and transferred to Lewis Cass after his eighth grade year. With the Kings, he played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Greg Marschand.

“He’s huge role model,” says Bixler of Marchand. “He took me under his wing and taught me almost everything I know today about baseball.

“He truly cares for each player. He is one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met.”

Bixler was supposed to graduate in 2020. When granted another year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided to play another season and took a class while also working as a salesman for Warweg & Co., Irrigation in Franklin. He is slated to graduate this spring with a Public Relations degree and a minor in Business.

At 23, Ryan is the youngest of Brad and Kathy Bixler’s four sons. Josh is the oldest, followed by Justin and Brandon.

Ryan Bixler (Franklin College Photo)

Communication key for Bullpen Tournaments VP Tucker

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Growing up playing sports in Zionsville, Ind., Michael Tucker knew what it was to be a teammate.

A center in basketball and catcher in baseball, Tulsa, Okla.-born Tucker played at Zionsville Community High School and graduated in 2008. Some of his closest friends to this day played on those squads.

“We had some great teams,” says Tucker, who played for head coaches Dave Ferrell and Shaun Busick in basketball and Darrell Osborne and Adam Metzler in baseball and counted Matt Miller as a mate on the court and the diamond. Miller went on to pitch at the University of Michigan and in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.

Eric Charles went on to play baseball at Purdue University.

Ryan Price’s father Tom Price played baseball for Dr. Don Brandon at Anderson (Ind.) University and that’s one of the reasons Tucker ended up at the NCAA Division III school.

Tucker was a standout hitter while playing catcher and first base for the Ravens and the Hall of Famer they called “Bama” for his first two college seasons followed by two with David Pressley.

Brandon impressed Tucker with his memory.

“He can tell you the situation — who was on the mound and the count — (from most any game),” says Tucker. “He was really fun to learn from.”

Pressley was a first-time head coach at Anderson. Tucker credits him with lessons on and off the field.

“I learned how to be a man,” says Tucker. “(Pressley) is a huge man of faith.

“He taught a tremendous amount of life lessons.”

Tucker also gained knowledge from Brad Lantz, who was an AU senior receiver when he was a freshman and went on to be a high school head coach at Guerin Catholic and Lapel and is now coaching in the Indy Sharks travel organization.

“I learned so much about catching, counts and what to look for,” says Tucker. “I learned more from (Lantz) than anyone else.”

Tucker was named to D3baseball.com’s 2010s All-Decade Team.  During his career, Tucket hit .361 with 52 home runs, 50 doubles, 193 runs batted in and a .730 slugging percentage. He was a first-team All-America selection and the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference MVP in 2011.

Franklin (Ind.) College has long been a big HCAC rival for Anderson. Tucker recalls how Grizzlies head coach Lance Marshall sometimes used to bring in a fifth infielder when Tucker was at the plate. 

Not a Marshall fan at the time, Tucker has come to see the veteran coach as one of his favorites.

Tucker received a Management degree with a minor in Entrepreneurship from Anderson U. in 2012. 

His “internship” time was spent coaching (coaching with Cesar Barrientos and the Indiana Baseball Academy Storm while injured in 2009) or playing summer collegiate ball (Fort Mill, S.C., Stingers of the Southern Collegiate Baseball League in 2010 and Hannibal, Mo., Cavemen of the Prospect League in 2011 — a team owned at the time by former big leaguers Ryan Klesko and Woody Williams) and he saw a future related to the diamond. 

“I wanted to make baseball my job whether that was with an indoor facility, coaching, training or tournaments,” says Tucker. “I didn’t know what avenue.”

Tucker was a director at the Incrediplex on the northeast side of Indianapolis 2013-15 and coached for the Indiana Bulls travel organization 2012-16.

Since April 2015, Tucker has been part of a different team as vice president for Bullpen Tournaments, Prep Baseball Report Tournaments (with Rhett Goodmiller as director of tournaments) and Pro X Athlete Development (with former big league pitcher Joe Thatcher as co-founder and president) are tenants at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind. Bullpen, with Tucker as the director of day-to-day operations, is involved with Pro X and works with PBR Indiana and consults with PBR national, which operates LakePoint Sports campus in Emerson, Ga., and Creekside Baseball Park in Parkville, Mo.

Ground was recently broken for Championship Park in Kokomo, Ind., and that complex will also be used by Bullpen and PBR.

The 2021 summer will mark Tucker’s seventh with Bullpen Tournaments. 

Hired by BT president Blake Hibler, whom he knew from working Prep Baseball Report showcases, Tucker started at Bullpen in time to experience Grand Park’s first full summer.

“I did everything,” says Tucker. “I tried to be a sponge. Being in baseball your whole life is completely different from the tournament industry.

“There’s learning the business side and scheduling.”

While at the Incrediplex near Lawrence, Tucker had done scheduling on a smaller scale and had become comfortable with software.

Tucker appreciates that Hibler lets him seek out processes.

“If I can find a better mousetrap, he lets me run with it,” says Tucker.

Bullpen is a very large operation.

“We’re a different beast in a lot of ways,” says Tucker, who notes that on any given weekend the company may have as many as 45 fields under its control, including those on and off the Grand Park campus.

Tucker says the key is getting the word out to teams, families and recruiters.

“You have to be able to communicate,” says Tucker. “Half of scheduling is the communicating of the schedule.”

With Hibler having a large part in brainstorming and development, Bullpen first used the Tourney Machine app and now works with Playbook 365 while also helping develop PitchAware and ScoreHQ. 

Bullpen hires scorekeepers for every high school tournament game (15U to 18U) at Grand Park. In 2020, there was also video on six fields.

“It’s huge to have accurate data,” says Tucker. “We can overlay video with stats.

“(A college) coach can recruit from his office.”

But even though Bullpen is dealing with many moving parts, there are only a half dozen full-time employees.

“Guys are tasked to learn a lot of different things,” says Tucker. “But we never feel like this is something I can’t do. Our mentality is we’re going bust our butts and how do we solve this problem?

“Our guys do a tremendous job of being flexible.”

An example of teamwork and flexibility is the creation of the College Summer League at Grand Park, which came about when so many other leagues were canceling the 2020 summer season during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team that made it happen include Hibler, Tucker, Thatcher, Phil Wade, Luke Dietz, Mark Walther, Matt Bowles, Logan Weins, Cam Eveland and Kevin Ricks. Thatcher and Walther are at Pro X. Weins splits his time between Bullpen Tournaments and PBR Tournaments.

With many players reaching out, Bullpen saw the need and went to work to put together what became a 12-team league with most games played at Grand Park with a few at Kokomo Municipal Stadium and Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis.

The league was constructed with safety, NCAA and recruiting regulations in mind. Players were placed, umpires were lined up and jerseys were distributed in a very short time frame.

“We had about seven days to do it,” says Tucker. “We’re excited for it to come back (in 2021).”

As a D-III alum, Tucker was especially pleased that the CSL allowed top-flight players like Joe Moran (who pitched for Anderson and has transferred to Taylor University) was able to compete against D-I talent.

While the pandemic slowed the start of the 2020 Bullpen season, Tucker estimates that there were upwards of 80 percent in games played as compared to a normal year.

The fall included more contests than ever.

“Teams couldn’t play in the spring and that baseball hunger was still there,” says Tucker. “They wanted to play a little longer.

“We had a great fall.”

Weather plays a part, but the first games each year at Grand Park with all its turf fields are collegiate in February. 

“If we get a warm-weather day our phone blows up,” says Tucker. 

Activity starts to ramp up in March with the first 8U to 14U contests the last weekend of that month.

Of course, the pandemic will have a say in what happens in 2021.

“With all the uncertainty it’s tough,” says Tucker. “It’s going to be an interesting spring.”

A perk of Tucker’s position and location is the relationships he gets to build with high school coaches. 

He sees the unique dynamic between between Noblesville’s Justin Keever, Westfield’s Ryan Bunnell, Zionsville’s Jered Moore and Fishers’ Matt Cherry of the Hoosier Crossroads Conference.

“They’re buddies,” says Tucker. “They go out to eat after the game.”

Michael and wife Dani Tucker live in Noblesville, Ind., with son Cole (5) and Cali (3).

The Tucker family (from left): Cali, Dani, Michael and Cole. Michael Tucker is vice president of Bullpen Tournaments is a tenant at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.