May 18, 2010
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It's not that Justin Howard was born with a bat in his hand, but if you have seen this gifted Lobo clobber a baseball, you are tempted to ask for a peek at his baby pictures.
At the least, Howard had a feel for the bat early. His mother has a favorite story to back this up.
Howard was about 3-years-old when mom handed him the standard, plastic bat for junior to swing. He took to it like a seal to water.
"My mom likes to tell the story about when I first picked up a bat," said the New Mexico senior. "Most kids will pick it up and kind of stand there facing you. I turned and stood sidelines, like you are supposed to."
Yeah, a hitter was born, er, formed and you can say that Howard has been hammering a baseball ever since. He was all-everything at Ennis High (Texas) and pounded the ball well enough at Navarro College (Texas) to turn the head of Lobo coach Ray Birmingham.
But there was still a transformation Howard had to make as a Lobo. In 2009, Howard hit the ball at a .309 clip. Not bad, but there was potential to add a few more digits to that stroke.
Howard did it big time. Going into this week's Mountain West Conference series with Utah, Howard is at .466. That's a 157-point jump. That's amazing.
He also has added 38 hits to his 2009 total of 70 hits and goes to Salt Lake City with 108 hits, 27 doubles, 67 RBIs and 70 runs scored.
The Utes probably will be giving Howard an intentional walk as he steps off the plane.
This Lobo can be a one-man wrecking crew. He showed that last week going 12-for-14 (.857) with 11 RBIs against Delaware State. He was the first player in D-I baseball to reach the 100-hit plateau this season and he was named MWC Co-Player of The Week.
"It's not over yet," said Howard. "I want more hits and we want more wins."
Howard's roots are all Texas, but fortunately for the Lobos, he didn't fall for that football thing that is so popular in the Lone Star state. "I did a little football in junior high and my first year in high school," he said. "But I knew that baseball was where I belonged. I just liked the game. I played it year around."
Howard might have dodged the football bug, but he couldn't avoid another aspect of Texas culture -- country music. "I'm from Texas and I play Texas country," said Howard. "I'm pretty good at playing the guitar, but I can't sing a lick."
Howard might not be destined to make the TV as an "American Idol" star, but he could be swinging a bat on the tube someday.
"Major League baseball loves him," said coach Birmingham. "He's as good as any hitter in the country. I think he's the conference Player of The Year.
"Justin has a natural talent for hitting, which is usually the case when you hit at such a high average. But he also works at it and takes great pride in his craft."
Howard said a big change from the .309 in 2009 to the .466 in 2010 is confidence at the plate, blended in with intelligent aggression.
"I really believe I'm going to get a hit every time I go to bat," he said. "My goal is to lead the team in average and lead in hits. If I do that, it gives my team a better chance to win.
"I'm not reckless at the plate, but I'm more aggressive this season. I'm a pretty good bad-ball hitter. If I think I can hit it hard, I'll go after it. I like to find a pitch to hit before I get behind in the count. You don't want to be swinging at the pitcher's pitch."
Howard said he came to New Mexico because he liked the personality and the philosophy of Birmingham -- and he saw a program on the rise.
"It wasn't just that this is a great place to come and be a hitter," said Howard. "I like the old-school, work-hard attitude and the way they handle things here."
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.