Knudson: MW’s Best Player? AFA’s Garrett Custons
By Mark Knudson, The Mtn. InsiderApril 2, 2012
The best baseball player in the Mountain West may very never play in the Conference tournament.
The best player in the MW doesn’t play at Conference power TCU or two- time defending Conference tourney champ New Mexico or for Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn at San Diego State or for up-and-coming UNLV.
Nope. The best baseball player in the Mountain West plays for Air Force.
Meet Falcons’ catcher Garrett Custons. I know, you’ve probably have never heard of him, but you should have. It can certainly be argued that New Mexico’s D.J. Peterson is the MW’s best player. The Lobos sophomore slugger is on another tear and is a shoe-in for All-Conference honors. We will get to see Peterson vs. Custons this weekend.
When this season ends, Custons will have completed three seasons in relative anonymity at the Air Force Academy. As a freshman, he led the Conference in stolen bases and set five school freshman records. He was All-MW as a sophomore last season, becoming the first Air Force First Team All-Conference representative since 2002. He ranked in the league’s top 10 in 11 categories, hitting .333 for the season and .356 in Conference play. Custons led the Falcons in eight offensive categories while throwing out just under 50% of base stealers and picking off seven more.
During the summer, he played for the Eau Clair (Wisconsin) Express in the Northwoods League, a wood bat league similar to the better-known Cape Cod league for top college baseball players. There, he hit .333 and threw out 70% of the base runners attempting to steal on him.
After receiving just passing interest from major colleges coming out of high school in Sarasota, Florida, Custons decided that Air Force was the place for him.
“I didn’t get that many offers out of high school,” he told me. “When I came here, I really liked it. We get to do some pretty cool stuff.”
Garrett has every intention of pursuing a career in the Air Force with one possible exception: He would really like a shot at professional baseball.
“I don’t want to hang up my spikes until they tell me I have to,” he smiles.
That certainly won’t be before next season, when Custons will return for his senior year. If the Falcons fail to qualify for the Conference tournament this year (they haven’t been in the tourney since 2006), next season will be tougher still with the addition of Fresno State and Nevada to the league slate. Getting to the tourney remains the Falcon’s number one goal.
Meanwhile, it’s very likely that the Conference coaches will tab TCU’s Josh Elander as the top catcher in the league after the season; Custons will probably end up being selected All-Conference as a utility player. Elander has already been named to the Johnny Bench Award watch list after a solid summer playing for Team USA. After a slow start, he’s got his batting average up to .303 with a pair of home runs and 15 RBI.
Elander is a very good baseball player but Custons is better. The Falcons’ catcher went 0-3 in the finale of the three game series at San Diego State, dropping his average to a robust .376. The teams Air Force has played so far include the likes of LSU, Oklahoma and Cal State Bakersfield. They’ve played on three coasts, including the Gulf. They’ve only played three home games. In other words, Custons has been doing this damage while dealing with jet lag against strong competition and without the benefit of padding his stats at the Academy’s launching pad of a baseball diamond. There’s no way anyone can claim his numbers are anything but completely legit. This kid is the real deal.
Custons power numbers aren’t where he’d like them to be (only three home runs) and his RBI total (14) is low because the two guys hitting in front of him are each hitting under .250. In other words, he comes to the plate with the bases empty a majority of the time. You can bet that as the Falcons squeeze in a few home games (they have 11 more games at home) his home run and RBI totals will increase. In the meantime, Custons has stolen six bases and scored 26 runs (almost twice as many as any teammate) to spark what offense Air Force has been able to muster.
“He’s our go-to guy,” says Air Force coach Mike Kazlausky. “We need Garrett to get the offense going.”
Custons is still listed as an outfielder and a catcher but wants as much time behind the plate as possible. He’s committed four errors on the season (his fielding percentage is .996) because he’s aggressive and sometimes a little too eager to try to pick runners off base.
“I voted for him first team catcher last season,” said UNLV head coach Tim Chambers. “He’s a helluva player.”
After San Diego State swept the Falcons over the weekend, the chances of Air Force sneaking into the Conference tourney remain very iffy. While they took two of three from UNLV at home, they haven’t played well in Conference road games and will need to find some road magic while winning more home series to reach the postseason.
It will be a shame if the bright lights of the Conference tourney never shine on the league’s best player.
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