Success in fall league has Matt Szczur eager for new season

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Matt Szczur had played 2 ½ seasons of professional baseball by the time his season ended with the Double A Tennessee Smokies in early September. He improved quite a few things as a player during that time. But it’s what he was able to do and learn in the Arizona Fall League last September and October that really has him excited for a new season to begin.

An outfielder, Szczur hit .264 in 91 at bats over 27 games with the Mesa Solar Sox in the fall league. He posted a solid on-base percentage of .368 and led his team in stolen bases with nine and was second on the team in hits with 24 and runs scored with 13.

The Arizona Fall League is reserved for the top handful of prospects from each Major League organization.

“I feel like I kind of found myself as a player and learned how to produce every day in the fall league,” Szczur said during a telephone interview earlier this week. “I found out how focused you have to be and how mentally draining baseball can be.

“I feel like in the fall league I went up there with the mentality that every at bat was my last at bat. I tried to focus and have that kind of approach every at bat. That helped me draw walks, get hits and drive the ball. Playing in that fall league helped me dramatically. I had a really, really good time in the fall league. I learned lot about myself and a lot about the game.”

Szczur, a 2007 Lower Cape May Regional graduate and a sixth-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2010, heads back to Arizona this weekend in preparation for spring training. He’ll again begin the preseason in big league camp.

“I’m excited to get going again, for sure,” Szczur said.

Szczur, 22, began last season in the high Single A Daytona, where he batted .295 with 38 stolen bases and 68 runs scored in only 78 games. Shortly after appearing in the Florida State League all-star game, Szczur was promoted to Double A Tennessee, where he batted .210 with 34 runs scored in 25 games.

Despite having only brief experience above the Single A level, Szczur is hoping to play well enough to garner serious attention by the parent club this spring.

“I’m going to big-league camp with the idea that I’m going to try to win a position,” he said. “Being in Double A for only half a season last year, that might be kind of hard but I’m going in there looking to perform the best I can.”

Baseball America lists Szczur as the best athlete and the best baserunner in the Cubs’ minor league system. And ranks him as the team’s ninth-best prospect heading into the season. Szczur most likely will begin the season back at the Double A level.

“I think 2013 is going to be a big year for me,” Szczur said. “If I produce, then no question I’ll progress and move up the system. It all depends on me. I have to go out and play well.”

Szczur was a two-sport star in football and baseball at Lower Cape May and Villanova before becoming a full-time pro baseball player in 2010. He is Lower Cape May’s all-time hits leader and holds the South Jersey for highest single-season batting average at .681 as a senior in baseball. In football, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a senior and led the Caper Tigers to a state playoff berth as a senior.

Szczur became one of the top college football players in the nation at Villanova. As a junior, he was named the Colonial Athletic Association’s Offensive and Special Teams Player of the Year while leading the Wildcats to the Football Championship Subdivision title. He also was a first team Big East all-star in baseball during his final season at Villanova.

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