Drew Kitchens feels at ease when he’s at shortstop.
That’s been his home on the baseball diamond for the Mitchell High School baseball team the past four seasons, providing it with consistency during a time in flux. Mitchell coach Luke Norden wanted to find someone who could lock down the position, so he turned to Kitchens, a freshman at the time with an evident passion for the game.
Now in his senior season, Kitchens still mans that area of dirt for the 15-6 Kernels.
“I’d probably say the field,” Kitchens said when asked what his favorite spot on the diamond is. “I just feel relaxed and confident out there. I feel like it’s a huge relief when you make a nice play.”
He’s made enough plays to fill an entire episode of SportsCenter by focusing on the “simple” outs and knowing the harder ones will happen. It’s led to him having a .909 fielding percentage this season and being part of six of Mitchell’s nine double plays.
Being a three-sport athlete helps, too. Hockey helped build his lower body strength as he “wasn’t able to jump,” when he was younger. And football improved his mentality, which stands out to Norden.
“The thing that makes him good -- and he’s always had this in him -- he always thinks he’s going to make a play, no matter where the ball’s hit,” Norden said. “Some guys give up on balls or slow (down). Drew always has that knack to think he’s going to make the play.”
While Kitchens has been a staple at shortstop, his role in the batter’s box and pitcher’s mound has been more undefined. He’s hit leadoff, second and third in the lineup this season, and his four pitching appearances have been divided into two starts and two relief outings.
Kitchens doesn’t mind it. He’s just trying to help the team by hitting line drives into the gaps, being a sound situational hitter and trusting his defense when on the mound. It’s part of what’s made him an exceptional leader.
“His biggest strength is being a true team player and wearing his emotions on his sleeve,” Norden said. “He’s one of those kids that really have bought into our program and the things that we’re trying to do. As a leader, his biggest asset to the team is the way he carries himself and how hard he works everyday.”
His hard work has paid off with a .286 batting average, .512 on-base percentage, 13 RBIs and team-high 28 runs. He’s drawn 18 walks to five strikeouts in 82 plate appearances, as well as being hit by eight pitches because his dad would make him run if he jumped out of the way as a kid.
His success is what’s made him a nomad of sorts in the batting order.
“Just trying to figure out -- not so much him -- where other guys might fit in the most and he’s the guy who gets moved to see if other guys can (hit) because I know I can put him anywhere,” Norden said. “... He’s by far our best guy about not striking out and at least putting the ball in play. In that sense, you can hit him anywhere in the order.”
He’s also started to earn more starts on the mound, which he prefers over coming out of the bullpen since it’s easier to mentally prepare. He’s shown flashes of the pitcher he could be, such as allowing two unearned runs in 4 2/3 innings during the 2017 Legion state championship game against Pierre when Mitchell fell behind 10-1.
But this season has been his biggest role as he owns a 2.80 ERA and nine strikeouts in 15 innings. The right-hander only pitched in 4 1/3 innings last spring and 21 1/3 innings in Legion play last summer.
“I just go out there and try to throw strikes and let my team make plays,” Kitchens said. “It’s a game of failing and their hitters are going to fail as much as our hitters do. If you get the ball in play, it gives our team a better chance.”
Kitchens’ Mitchell career will conclude at the end of the spring season since he’s too old to play Legion baseball. But his baseball career will continue at the University of Sioux Falls, where former Mitchell catcher Sam Michels, “told (him) to check it out.” The shortstop also had offers from Dakota Wesleyan University and Mount Marty. He will major in business at USF.
Norden saw Kitchens’ drive to reach the next level as a freshman when he inserted him in the lineup, which was simply another asset Kitchens has brought to the program.
“He’s always had that something to strive for and something to get better so he can continue to keep playing,” Norden said. “That’s what makes guys that want to play at the next level so important to our program. They’re not satisfied where they’re at or end as seniors, they want to continue to get better, moving into their college careers.”