When Utah’s C.J. Cron steps to the plate, opposing pitchers should be ready to face a tough out. The junior first baseman from Phoenix, Ariz., mixes power-hitting talents with the ability to hit for average – a combination that is rare at the collegiate level. 

Cron entered the week leading the nation with a .885 slugging percentage, while batting .448 for second in Division I.  Creighton’s Trever Adams is the only player in the nation close to Cron in both categories, ranking 17th in batting average (.408) and seventh in slugging percentage (.747). 

“I’m not sure I’ve seen a more complete hitter at this point of someone’s career than C.J.,” Utah head coach Bill Kinneberg said.  “He’s got tremendous power, but he also hits for a great average, which you don’t see very often.  He’s a unique guy because of that.  He’s very difficult to get out and he can hurt you at any point in the game.  He’s a very mature hitter for a college player.”

That is high praise coming from someone that has coached at the college level for 28 years, and served three stints with USA Baseball, including head coaching duties of last summer’s USA Baseball Collegiate National Team – a squad Cron would have been a member of if not for suffering a knee injury early in the summer.

Cron’s hitting prowess is the result of inheriting a little talent and a lot of baseball knowledge from his father Chris, who played in the minor leagues for 12 seasons before managing for the last 16 years.  This summer, the elder Cron is serving as the manager for the Erie Seawolves, a Double-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers organization. 

“I’ve been around the game ever since I could walk, so I’ve picked up on little things that not everyone does,” Cron said.  “It’s definitely helped me along the way after starting at such an early age.”

Cron’s countless hours in the dugout, picking up players’ bats or keeping score when he was old enough to write, have given him unmatched experience in all aspects of the game.

“I think the thing you notice when you watch him play and coach him is that he’s been around the game so much,” Kinneberg said.  “He’s one step ahead of most college players on the mental side as well.   The game comes easy for him both on the defensive and offensive sides.  He’s been around the game so much he’s got a sixth sense about it.  His baseball aptitude is maybe the best I’ve ever coached.”

Kinneberg knows well where Cron picked up those baseball instincts.  Before taking the helm at Utah in 2003, Kinneberg worked two seasons with the elder Cron in the Chicago White Sox organization, and the two kept in touch.  A few years ago, the old friends reacquainted themselves.

“Luckily, one day, (Chris Cron) called and said his son was a pretty good player we should look at and so that’s how the recruiting process started,” Kinneberg said.

Cron chose Utah over perennial national contender Arizona State after falling in love with the Salt Lake City campus and its’ baseball program, and made an immediate impact for the Utes. 

“I wanted to experience something different, and when I came here I fell in love with it, and I’m really happy with my choice,” Cron said.

After earning Second Team Freshman All-America honors in 2009, Cron topped that by garnering 2010 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year.  Last year, he batted .431 with a .817 slugging percentage, and led the nation with 1.65 RBI per game.  Currently, Cron ranks second in doubles per game (0.58), seventh in home runs per game (0.35) and 11th with a .520 on-base percentage.  He has reached base in 61 straight games, dating back to last season.

“I really believe that comes from the fact his dad is a tremendous hitting coach and he’s taught him and his brother Kevin (a TCU commitment) extremely well,” Kinneberg said.  “His foundation is terrific.”

Cron is a key part of the Utes’ success this season.  After starting the season 0-5, Utah has posted a 25-11 mark, including eight wins in the squad’s last 10 contests. 

“We’re a very well-rounded ball club,” Cron said.  “Our Friday night starter Rick Anton (7-1, 2.56 ERA) is a stud.  We’ve been hitting the ball well lately, and that has carried us some games, but also our pitching has carried us in some games.  When we put the two together, we’re very tough to beat.”

The Utes currently sit in second place in the MWC standings, one-and-a-half games behind first-place and No. 10 TCU.  The two teams will battle for the top spot in the standings in a three-game league series beginning May 13.

“We have a chance to win the conference, and that’s been our goal since day one,” Cron said.  “We’re going to take it one game at a time, but if we can take this series, anything can happen … we could be Mountain West Conference champions.”