As a Thayer runner slid toward the plate, Kirk Pierce dove headfirst at him. The runner was out in a seemingly simple play in the first game of the year. But the consequences of the collision would be with Pierce the rest of the season.
Pierce tore ligaments in his thumb on the play, forcing him a few games later to give up catching duties for the first time in his career. His hitting slumped and he had difficulty adjusting to his new position at third base.
“He was down because he wasn’t catching anymore,” Houston coach Brent Hall said, “and it bothered him a little bit.”
It didn’t last long, though. Pierce became more comfortable at third and his potent bat came to life. Anchoring the Tigers’ lineup as clean-up hitter, Pierce was among the team leaders in each offensive category to earn first team all-state honors.
“Kirk is a tough kid,” Hall said. “It took a lot out of him when he had to give up his catching position. It bothered him and took him a few games to get used to playing a different position. Once he did that, he settled in with his bat.”
Pierce, who has started every game since his freshman season, was at his best during Houston’s historic postseason run. He batted .500 in the playoffs with five doubles, eight runs and 14 RBIs.
Pierce finished his junior season with a .442 batting mark while ranking second on the team in doubles (9), home runs (4) and RBIs (34). Pierce was clutch in run-producing situations – when he could find them. Gus Durst, who batted third, knocked in a school-record 55 runs in front of Pierce.
“That was a big joke. Every day at practice, I told him I’d be right up there with him if I was batting third,” Pierce said.
It was another statistically strong season for Pierce, who after a preseason talk with Hall agreed he could handle the breaking balls he would encounter moving from third to fourth in the lineup. Pierce batted a team-best .453 with 28 RBIs as a sophomore.
“He probably had a better season with the bat last year, but we didn’t go as far and it was tougher for him to get recognition,” Hall said. “Kirk does a good job of hitting the ball where it’s pitched. He kind of hits gap-to-gap. He may take a good, healthy cut early in the count, but when he’s down in the count he’ll shorten his stroke and put the ball in play.”
Pierce said his thumb immediately began swelling the inning after he suffered the injury. It was painful to catch. He visited a doctor, who revealed the ligament damage and told Pierce it wouldn’t get better this season. In fact, it would likely get worse and require surgery if he continued to catch.
It also took its toll offensively.
“At it’s worst, about midway through the season, it started to hurt me at the plate,” Pierce said.
That’s when he met with Hall, who decided to move his three-year starting catcher to third base. Hall admitted that Pierce was down, but you wouldn’t know it. He continued to play his part as the Tigers’ emotional leader.
“You can always tell he’s into the game. He shows everyone he’s having a good time,” Hall said. “When someone hits a home run, he’s the first one to greet them when they come in. if someone is having a bad game, he’s also the first one to back them on the back and tell them to hang in there. He’s there for his teammates regardless of how good or bad they’re doing.”