Thirteen games into the baseball season, Ashley Farr didn't appear to be his old self.
After a pair of record-setting seasons, the reigning Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year struggled to a .255 batting average. The USC Aiken senior outfielder quickly points to the reason for his slow start: being snubbed in the 2003 Major League Baseball draft.
"Coming into this year I was disappointed that I wasn't picked up," he said. "It just kind of took my passion away from the game a little bit. Ten to 15 games into the year, I just told myself that I still love this game and love to come out and play it."
Observers who overlooked Farr before have no choice but to pay attention to not only him, but to junior third baseman Bradley Key as well this year. Farr, listed in Baseball America's preview edition as one of the top five Division II prospects, has rebounded to put together a solid season, while Key is in the running to become the second Pacer in a row to earn the Peach Belt's top honor.
"I've been telling Bradley that it's been his time coming for a long time," Farr said.
It'll be no surprise if both players get chosen by Major League Baseball teams in June.
"It's been a dream since I was a kid," Key said. "Finally playing up to my ability is getting me closer and closer to that opportunity. Hopefully, I'll get it one day."
Farr thought his day came last year. After batting .427 with 13 homers and 74 RBI his sophomore season and setting four school records, Farr followed with another stellar year. He hit a conference-record .483 and slugged 10 homers with 64 RBI in 54 games, cruising to the league's highest honor.
"He kind of set the limit of what you need to get to to become one of the elite players in this conference," Key said.
When last year's draft came around, though, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Farr sat by his silent phone. Farr's funk carried over to this season.
"I came in thinking I had nothing left to prove (to baseball scouts)," he said. "I had already done what I set out to do. But I think I have to prove myself every day, because I'm not quite the prototypical 6-4, 220 guy."
Neither is the 5-11, 185-pound Key. He entered USC Aiken as a two-way player, effective in the field and on the mound. The past two seasons, he's hit .290 with 16 homers and 89 RBI. He also went 2-4 with four saves and 66 strikeouts in 47Q innings.
Pitching since his freshman year in high school, Key felt his elbow give in to excessive wear and tear late last season, then spent last summer recovering from Tommy John surgery. During his rehab, Key focused his energy solely on hitting and playing third base.
"I've always battled through arm trouble," he said. "It takes away a little bit of your focus, worrying about how healthy you are."
Key found his focus at the plate. Through 50 games, he's in the conference's top 10 in hitting (.379), doubles (20), triples (5), home runs (11) and RBI (55). He holds the school career record for doubles (54) and is five short of breaking the conference mark.
If he doesn't get chosen in the June draft, Key will play in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League.
Meanwhile, Farr has his sights set on the big leagues. He's hitting a respectable .333 with 10 homers and 42 RBI despite not seeing his fair share of good pitches, ala Barry Bonds.
"If and when that day comes, I'm going to bawl like a little baby," he said. "For four years of my life it's been eat, drink and sleep baseball."
"It's hard for me to think there's that many better outfielders and hitters in the country than Ashley Farr," USC Aiken coach Kenny Thomas said. " He's proven he can swing the bat with anybody."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHO: West Virginia Tech at USC Aiken (26-24)
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Roberto Hernandez Stadium