South Charlotte

Strikes or home runs, this Bulldog is a big hit

A.J. Larson has played baseball as long as he can remember. For much of that time, he was a pitcher.

His dad, Gary, was a minor-league pitcher, and he taught Larson the position. But something changed when A.J. started playing high school baseball at Butler.

"At the start of high school, I started hitting the ball really well, and I was like, I don't really want to pitch anymore," he said. "I (had been) focused on pitching, and hitting was just going through the motions, and as I got older it flipped completely."

As a junior last year, Larson was one of the best power hitters in the conference, hitting eight home runs and helping Butler to a tie for third in the Southwestern 4A. The outfielder also was named conference co-Player of the Year with Ardrey Kell's Logan Ratledge, and was named to the N.C. Baseball Coaches Association all-state team.

Whatever changed when Larson entered high school, it's been good for Butler baseball.

This year, Larson, 17, is batting .375 with four RBIs and a home run as the No. 4 hitter for the Bulldogs, who are 2-2 (through March 8).

Larson, who called himself a late bloomer, struggled in his first two years at Butler, especially with his power.

Between his sophomore and junior years, he worked hard to improve. He joined the South Charlotte Panthers club team, which annually has some of the area's most talented players. With help from his dad, Larson, a 5-foot-11 lefty, also changed his stance slightly, modeling it after Major League Baseball player Albert Pujols, with his weight on his back foot and hands higher.

"I worked really hard from sophomore to junior year," Larson said. "After that I got really good at the plate, and junior year I kind of took off."

In addition to the eight home runs, Larson hit .315 and had 23 RBIs as a junior.

Butler head coach Rick Sambrotto - a longtime Butler assistant coach who took over this year after Kim Cousar took the coaching job at Charlotte Latin - said Larson continues to work hard in the weight room this year and is "one of the strongest kids on the team."

As strong as he is, it might be harder for Larson to hit home runs this year, after the National High School Baseball Coaches Association required players to start using BBCOR bats, designed to reduce the speed of the ball coming off the bat and make them act more like wood bats.

Larson said he's noticed a difference but thinks he can still hit for power. He's one of only four players in the conference to hit a home run this season, after putting one out at home against North Mecklenburg.

"The guys that can hit are still going to be able to hit," said Sambrotto. "A.J. is one of those guys that can still hit it out no matter what he's using. He could hit it out with a wood bat if he has to."

Slower pitchers and off-speed pitches still frustrate Larson, who said he's a natural pull hitter. He'd rather face fast pitchers and looks forward to facing one of the conference's best pitchers in Providence High's Ty Buttrey.

"I hope we face him, he throws like 95 (mph)," said Larson. "I hit a home run off him last year. That was awesome."

Larson relies on power in the outfield, too, with a strong arm in right field. He threw out a player at home plate last year against Davie County to help Butler win its first-round playoff game. He's also quick, and with teammates Chase Gehringer, a senior, and Malachi Hanes, a junior, Larson said, this year's Butler team has "the fastest outfield ever."

With just one year of high school baseball left, Larson is thinking about where he wants to play in college. He was accepted to UNC Charlotte academically and would try to walk on to the baseball team if he went there. He is also considering playing at smaller schools if he gets a good opportunity.

Wherever he goes, he wants to play.

"It's hard to function without baseball," Larson said. "When I don't have baseball in my life, it's like 'What do I do?' "