By John Bohnenkamp
Austin Simpson lost his 2020 season at Southeastern Community College to the COVID-19 pandemic, and missed most of the second half of this season after suffering a facial injury.
His work over the summer, though, has made a difference.
Simpson leads the Burlington Bees in hitting at .392, ranking 11th among Prospect League hitters. He has 20 hits in 14 games, tied for seventh in the league.
“I’ve just tried to stay consistent, doing what I do,” said the first baseman, who has two home runs and 13 runs batted in while posting a 1.044 OPS.
Simpson hit .317 with SCC in 34 games this season, hitting seven home runs and driving in 39 runs. But Simpson suffered a facial injury when he was hit by a ground ball during batting practice before an April 14 doubleheader at Marshalltown. The injury required surgery and kept him out for the rest of the junior college season.
“Oh, I hated it,” he said. “Couldn’t stand watching and not being out there.”
Simpson’s hitting wasn’t affected by the time off. He had six hits in his first 13 at-bats to open the season, and has had a six-game hitting streak this season in which he hit .455. That streak was snapped with an 0-for-3 game in Saturday’s loss at O’Fallon, but in Sunday’s 12-2 win over Clinton at Community Field Simpson reached base in all five plate appearances, going 3-for-3.
“Austin is just a very, very good hitter,” Bees manager Gary McClure said. “He hits for average, and he hits for power, and not a lot of guys do that. He gets on base, people have to be careful how to pitch him. He’s a great hitter.”
This is Simpson’s second season in a summer wood-bat league — he played last summer in the Kernels Collegiate League in Normal, Ill. That season was important, since Simpson’s first year at SCC was canceled because of the pandemic.
“It was hard,” Simpson said of missing the spring season. “You work for something the whole school year, and then to see it taken away was difficult.”
Simpson grew up in nearby Fairfield, graduating in 2019 from Fairfield High School. He grew up watching the Bees when the team played in the Class A Midwest League.
“It’s close to home. And I grew up watching the team,” he said. “So it’s cool to be a part of it.”
Playing in the Prospect League means long bus trips. The Bees got back from O’Fallon early Sunday morning, but were back in the batting cages for work at noon.
“It’s what we do,” Simpson said. “You can’t change it or do anything about it. It makes you grow up a little bit.”
Simpson will play at Quincy University next season.
“They’ve got a really good program, and they develop players,” he said. “When I went there and took my visit, it felt like I was home.”
Simpson knows what this season can mean to him.
“I just want to be better than I was when I got here,” he said. “Be an elite player.”
BY THE NUMBERS
• Jackson Jones is on a seven-game hitting streak. Jones, who is hitting .333 with a 1.094 OPS, is batting .429 during the streak. He has four home runs in the last six games. Jones is tied for third in the league with five home runs, and is tied for third with six doubles.
• Kevin Santiago has a six-game hitting streak. He is batting .360 in the streak with eight runs batted in. Santiago is tied for four in the league with 19 RBIs.
• Pitcher McLain Harris is third in the league with 24 strikeouts.
• Reliever Garrett Langrell is tied for league lead in wins with three.
THE WEEK AHEAD
• At Lafayette, Wednesday and Thursday. The Bees go into the Eastern Conference for two games against the Aviators, who lead the Wabash River Division at 12-4. Lafayette’s Tanner Craig is second in the league in hitting at .462, and leads the league with six home runs. Pitcher Chase Stratton is seventh in the league with a 1.88 ERA.
• At Normal, Friday (doubleheader). The Cornbelters (7-8) are 1 1/2 games behind the Bees in the Great River Division. Catcher Eddie Niemann is hitting .389 for the Cornbelters.
• O’Fallon, Saturday. The Bees come home for a game against the Hoots (9-5). Outfielder Brett Johnson leads the Hoots with a .379 average.
• Quincy, Sunday. It’s the first appearance of the Gems (5-10) at Community Field.
Photo: Burlington Bees first baseman Austin Simpson catches a foul popup in Sunday’s game against Clinton at Community Field. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)