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Baseball America weekend preview

EMMAZING BURRISS

It's not hard to figure out that Emmanuel Burriss has a passion for baseball. Just look at the apartment he shares with Kent State teammate Will Vazquez.

"Our living room is a batting cage," said Burriss, a junior shortstop. "We used to have a net up, but we took that down. So there are Wiffle balls all over. Sometimes you find them in the dishwasher."

When Burriss and Vazquez aren't working on their swings, they're bouncing tennis balls off the floor and walls to work on short hops. That practice carries over to road trips, where the pounding on the walls and yelling caused such a ruckus that Kent State coach Scott Stricklin now makes a point to never stay in the hotel room next to them.

Students in Burriss' dormitory in previous years must have wished they had that kind of power, too. The 6-foot, 174-pound athlete used to spend nights sprinting up and down the 10 floors of stairwells in ankle weights to improve his speed.

"The thing about baseball is, it's the one sport you can work at and have fun at it at the same time," Burriss said.

Combining that type of work ethic with Burriss' natural athleticism turns out a leadoff man batting .390 with a .476 on-base percentage, 34 steals and 62 runs scored while offering above-average defense. He ranks sixth in the nation in steals per game and seventh in runs per game. That, combined with his Cape Cod League-leading 37 steals (19 more than anyone else) and 52 hits last summer, has some teams considering drafting Burriss as soon as the end of the first round.

Burriss' game is based around his speed. He's trimmed his 60-yard dash time from 6.6 seconds to 6.35 in the time he's been at Kent State. And the switch-hitter makes ample use of it from the left side, slapping balls to the left side of the infield while running out of the batter's box. It's a tactic Ichiro Suzuki has made famous with the Mariners, but Burriss first remembers testing it out after seeing journeyman Timo Perez do it.

Burriss is a natural right-handed hitter, but wanted to try switch-hitting after seeing Roberto Alomar, his favorite player as a youth. Burriss started hitting from the left side in high school and now is more comfortable from that side because being a step closer to first base enhances his speed game.

"One thing I'm most pleased with Emmanuel is he understands who he is and doesn't get away from it," Stricklin said. "He is a leadoff hitter who lays down bunts and doesn't try to do too much. He's not getting draft-itis. A lot of times you see guys get in his position and want to do more, change their game for the scouts."

If anything, Burriss bunts more now than he has in previous years. He lays it down to open the game, and he's not afraid to bunt with two strikes, either. And he'll slash if infielders try to cheat.

Despite the small-ball approach, Burriss has worked to increase his strength since entering college at 154 pounds. That was his main shortcoming in the Cape, where 48 of his 52 hits were singles. His slugging percentage has increased each year in college, from .305 to .377 to .528, though Burriss doesn't plan on changing his style of play.

"Playing this summer in Cape Cod was more of a mental builder than anything -- playing on that level and actually doing well," said Burriss, who earned playoffs co-MVP honors for the Orleans Cardinals. "I came onto my team as a temporary player; it wasn't even a guarantee that I'd stay the whole summer. It gave me confidence in what I was doing, knowing that it works on this level.

"I found success doing what I could offensively. It's easy to stick with my approach because not only does it work, but it fits me the best. When you find success doing something you know you do well, you stick with it."

Stricklin saw a difference in Burriss' confidence upon his return to campus. He also credits Burriss' baseball instincts and maturity as factors in his success. He has learned to read pitchers and has been caught stealing just twice this season, after going 16-for-30 on the bases a year ago.

Burriss has made strides defensively as well. He always owned above-average infield actions with good range, quick feet and soft hands, and he has cut down on his errors. His arm strength rates below-average now, though he can overcome it through positioning and can still get stronger.

"He can play shortstop at the big league level," Stricklin said. "If he has to, he can move off of that, to second base or the outfield. He can do that, too.

"He reminds me of Pokey Reese. Pokey was the guy in the minor leagues at shortstop. He made a play and you got Pokeyed. Emmanuel is a similar player."

Stricklin feels fortunate to have inherited Burriss when he came to Kent State from Georgia Tech after the 2004 season. The Washington, D.C., native might not have ended up at Kent State if not for former Kent State assistant coach Jeff Waggoner, who left for North Carolina State after Burriss' freshman year.

Waggoner was an assistant coach at George Washington when he first saw Burriss at Wilson High. He got to know his parents, Allen and Denise, and followed Burriss in travel tournaments in the Northern Virginia area. When Rick Rembielak hired Waggoner at Kent State, the Golden Flashes needed a shortstop. Waggoner knew just where to go for one.

"There weren't many schools on him at the time because the D.C. area isn't recruited that much, but when I was recruiting him, I could see the talent," Waggoner said. "He could really run, had a great arm and was a hard worker -- everything you want in a ballplayer."

Burriss admits he didn't know where Kent State was when Waggoner first mentioned it to him. But he had heard of the school because a kid who lived on his street in D.C., Larry Brown, accepted a scholarship to play defensive tackle there. That referral and Burriss' prior relationship with Waggoner made the decision easy.

Three years later, Burriss has emerged as Kent State's best player, and the 32-15 Flashes are in first place in the Mid-American Conference at 15-6, with bottom feeders Akron and Buffalo remaining on the conference schedule. They are well positioned for their second NCAA appearance in Burriss' career. Still, he hasn't stopped working.

"I realized at an early age the opportunity I could have to play professional baseball," Burriss said. "I knew millions of kids out there were practicing to do the same thing. That thought helps me stay focused. I love baseball with all my heart."

That's something every coach can appreciate about Burriss. Unless that coach shares a wall with him.