After hitting .456 his senior year at the University of New Mexico, there were never any questions about Justin Howard’s ability to hit a baseball. The entire Midwest Conference could verify that.

The Ennis grad impressed the Pittsburgh Pirates so much the team selected him in the 24th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. He rewarded the Bucs with a .341 batting average in 15 games in the Gulf Coast League to finish out that season.

Now with the Class A West Virginia Power of the South Atlantic League, Howard’s focus is to continue improving all parts of his game but there is one in particular that is a point of emphasis.

“One of the big things that I needed to work on was my defense and this year I’ve made the biggest strides I’ve ever made defensive-wise,” Howard said in a recent interview while in Lakewood, N.J.. “They’d like me to be able to play first base and outfield. It’s something I’ve been working on playing both since college. I’ve been playing primarily first base this year but getting accustomed to playing both has been huge for me this year and will be as far as moving up.”

He has spent a good part of the season hitting in the cleanup spot for the Power, splitting time between first base, right field and the designated hitter role. Howard is hitting .248 this season with six home runs and 53 RBIs in 110 games. Although he’d like his batting average to be higher, his .358 on-base percentage is a pleasant sight to the organization, which puts the focus on quality at-bats in low Class A.

“I need to keep having good at-bats,” Howard said. “This is my first full season and, through the grind, you can lose focus at the plate. I have to remember that my goal each time is to leave the batter behind me in better position than I was in when I came to the plate.”

This season has been a learning process. The former Lobos’ star found success out of the gate, hitting .307 in April. But a May swoon saw his average fall to .224 for the month.

And although his batting average hasn’t jumped up much since then, his quality at-bats have. Howard has drawn 67 walks this season and cut down on his strikeouts as the season has progressed.

“I keep having good ABs and continue learning,” Howard said. “You wouldn’t expect going from one level to another that it would be that different but it really is. They pitch a lot better here than in college and I imagine pitch even better as you move up.You have to relearn everything as you move up and make adjustments.”

And despite the struggles, Howard has been able to keep a positive outlook as the season grinds on. He credits that to concentrating on the task each day and not looking too far ahead.

“The only thing I can control is my attitude, my work ethic and the amount of effort I put out each day,” Howard said. “Good things happen if you keep working hard and my plan is to work as hard as you possibly can. It doesn’t matter to me where I play. If I DH, I get my work defensively before the game.”

Work isn’t usually the first word people use to describe the life of a professional baseball player. Howard says he wouldn’t have either before signing with the Pirates.

“I think people just assume we just show up for the game and that’s the beginning and end of our job,” Howard says. “They don’t really understand the work that needs to be put in before the game and that’s pretty much what our work day is. You get here pretty early and people don’t really see that. I know I didn’t think about coming into pro ball.”

“The game is fun for us.”