For the first time in a while, Zach Remillard didn’t bother setting any specific goals for himself heading into this season.
No home run total he wanted to reach, no batting average he wanted to strive for, nothing other than one simple mindset.
“I came in with the expectation that I was going to go out there and cherish every moment,” he said recently. “... I was just going to take advantage of the time I had on the field because I love playing the game, I love to compete and whatever happens, happens. Because the only way to get the best out of yourself is to relax and have fun and really enjoy playing the game.”
And whatever numbers Remillard could have envisioned if he had thought to come up with any such goals, well, he’s probably already surpassed by this point.
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After a couple years hindered by a significant elbow injury and flawed at times by inconsistency, Coastal Carolina’s senior third baseman has found his comfort zone this spring while making it easy – finally – to relax and enjoy the ride.
Entering the start of the No. 22-ranked Chanticleers’ three-game series with Campbell on Thursday – the final games of the regular season – Remillard’s .350 batting average is 78 points higher than his previous career best, his 14 home runs are more than he hit the last three seasons combined and his .626 slugging percentage dwarfs his previous career-high of .419.
It definitely had been a three-year up-and-down roller-coaster ride of ‘Why can’t I get it? What’s going on here?’ And just reaching for that consistency/letting your abilities show on the field. But to say that it’s surprising, no. I always knew that through hard work and the right mindset anything was possible.
CCU third baseman Zach Remillard
But just as he insists he didn’t enter this final season feeling any pressure to improve his draft stock or fulfill the considerable potential he brought with him to Coastal Carolina several years ago, he’s taken this breakout year in stride as well – having learned a few lessons along the way.
“You can look at it as pressure, but I kind of came into this season knowing that, especially with the surgery I went through, that you can’t control your destiny, you can’t control your outcome. You can just cherish every moment you have on the field,” Remillard reiterated. “I think that’s the [mindset] I’ve had all season that’s helped me out – relax, have fun, enjoy the moment, because it doesn’t last forever.”
A fresh start
The numbers haven’t surprised him so much, he says, but Remillard admits there is one thing he didn’t totally expect out of this season,.
For the first time since tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm late in his sophomore season, he finally feels back to full strength and said he’s experienced no pain whatsoever this season.
“No, not at all,” he said. “And honestly if I was to say that I felt 100 percent mentally about my arm going into the season I would [have been lying], so it’s a pretty good turn of events knowing we’re however many games in and I still haven’t had that moment where it’s starting to get tired or starting to setback. I’m as 100 percent as I’ve ever been.”
It was during a mid-May series at Liberty two years ago that Remillard knew something was wrong. He fielded a high chopper to third and threw the ball as hard as he could to first base while feeling a “little click” in his elbow.
“I stayed in the game and I looked over at [shortstop Michael] Paez and said, ‘If I get another ground ball I’m done.’ And sure enough that inning I got another ground ball and everything went,” he recalled.
He continued to try to play the rest of that season, making some starts at first base or pinch-hitting to try to contribute in whatever way he could, but even that was a challenge.
“I kind of have that mindset, my dad kind of had that effect on me, always wanting to be out there, always wanting to compete, always wanting to do whatever you can to help your team,” he said. “I mean if I couldn’t have done any more damage to it, I might as well fight through the pain and help the team win whatever I could help them with. I sat out some games, but some games I got some at-bats and just tried to do whatever I could. ...
“It definitely didn’t feel good. I recall one game in the conference tournament where I got a ground ball to first and ended up having to throw it home, and I felt like I was throwing a 30-pound weight to home. I knew I was getting surgery, I knew what it was, so it wasn’t a big deal.”
Remillard had Tommy John surgery that summer and just as he didn’t want to leave the lineup in the first place, he was eager to make sure he didn’t miss any time in returning.
In hindsight, he admits he may have rushed back too quick. The elbow continued to trouble him at times last spring and he says he couldn’t help but wonder if it would ever be totally right again.
“Just convincing everyone that my arm felt good at the time was probably a mistake because in the long run the extra wear and tear caught up and gave me a little setback toward the middle of [last] season,” he said.
Still, it was a career year at the plate for him at the time as he hit .272 with six home runs, 12 doubles and 42 RBIs.
There’s not a more dedicated, harder-working individual in this program now or I don’t know that there’s ever been one. He’s completely totally committed to this program, to himself, getting better every day.
CCU baseball coach Gary Gilmore
Meanwhile, he continued to do the work off the field to try to get that elbow right again.
Barry Lippman, the Chants’ associate athletic trainer and rehab coordinator, says he spent a lot of days throughout that process sitting in his office and talking with Remillard about the mental grind of rehabbing from such a procedure, and having watched that rehab up close, he feels it’s no coincidence the third baseman has been able to finally put the elbow trouble behind him and have the season he’s now producing as a senior.
“I think he’s a great example of this thing that we use, ‘The game knows,’” Lippman said. “The game knows who’s been skipping reps in the weight room. The game knows who skipped early [batting practice] today. The game knows who took a nap on the couch instead of doing his pre-work in the training room. So he’s a great example of, the game knows that he’s been crushing that rice in the rice bucket every day for hours and for a year. It’s rewarding him now. It’s not just a coincidence. It’s a cause and effect for sure.”
Gary Gilmore says this has been one of his most enjoyable teams to coach in his more than two decades leading the program, and not just because of the success these Chants (37-15) have produced on the field.
It’s as much the stories behind the success, the obstacles and setbacks that so many of the key contributors have overcome to make this season possible that makes Gilmore especially proud.
He rattles off the names, from junior right-hander Alex Cunningham missing a year and a half on the mound and overcoming yet more setbacks last spring before settling in as the team’s Friday starter, to senior right fielder Connor Owings continuing to overcome a serious kidney condition while just getting better and better every season to Remillard and others.
“You’ve got some really unique seniors on this team that have battled through some things and fought through some things that are incredible testaments to their toughness, their perseverance, their passion for baseball,” Gilmore said recently, sitting in his office before a practice. “Zach is the epitome of that with the injuries and the things he’s fought through in his career here, and there’s not a more dedicated, harder-working individual in this program now or I don’t know that there’s ever been one.
“He’s completely totally committed to this program, to himself, getting better every day, and the fun part about this bunch is, I don’t know what we’ll end up doing or where we’ll get to at the end, but it has the ability and the make-up. At least I can say in the last five years I will have coached two of the most enjoyable teams I’ve ever coached because of not only are they good – and they’re damn good – they’re so humble.”
For Remillard that mindset has been reinforced by more than just his own injury struggles. His brother Will Remillard, a former star catcher for the Chants, ended up having the same “structural weakness” in his elbow and had a second Tommy John surgery earlier this year while putting his minor league career on hold for the time being.
They talk daily, and Remillard said watching his brother go through the same thing has helped him appreciate even more what he’s been able to do this season.
“I’ve come a long way in maturing and knowing that everything’s going to happen the way it’s supposed to happen,” he said. “Whatever I’m called to do in this life, I’m going to do. I mean I love baseball more than the next guy and I do it just about every second of every day in my life, but I’ve come a long way in understanding that there’s a plan, there’s a process and whatever that may be you’re going to have to deal with and make the best of it.”
Which is exactly what he’s done through the first 52 games of this season.
His 14 home runs would be the most hit by a Coastal Carolina player since current Chicago Cub Tommy La Stella hit that many in 2011, if not for junior teammate G.K. Young swatting his 15th of the season in the Chants’ win Tuesday night over UNC Wilmington.
Those two rank one-two on the Big South’s home run leaderboard (the Chants actually have four of the top five on that list) while Remillard also ranks tied for first in the conference with Young with 129 total bases, second to Young with 53 RBIs, second to Owings with that .626 slugging percentage, tied for third with 50 runs scored and tied for eighth with 72 hits.
“He’s hitting the ball finally like we all know he’s able to hit it, and I’m very proud of him and the work he’s put in in the offseason,” Young said of his teammate. “He’s night and day a different baseball player than I watched the past three years and I’m very proud of him.”
Remillard was a 38th-round draft pick of the Houston Astros out of high school before choosing to follow through on his commitment to Coastal Carolina, and it certainly looks like he’ll get another chance at launching his pro career after the way he’s finishing his time in Conway.
And it will be at that point, he says, that he’ll take some time to truly reflect on everything that’s led up to this phenomenal finish.
For now, though, he’s just staying true to his main goal for this senior season and enjoying every moment.
“It’s been a tough three years. The coaching staff has stuck with me through the ups and downs, so I knew that if I just relaxed and play[ed] my game things would happen,” he said. “I didn’t really put a number on it or set any expectations; I just came out here and played and let the ability show up and so far it’s been fun. And I’m just grateful for the opportunity I have.”
No. 22-ranked Coastal Carolina hosts Campbell in the final three-game series of the regular-season this week at Springs Brooks Stadium with games Thursday at 6 p.m., Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. That regular-season finale Saturday is free to all fans.