Report: Former LSU baseball star Austin Nola tearing it up for Seattle

Photo courtesy of JOSHUA BESSEX, THENEWSTRIBUNE.COM

Editor’s note: This is an excellent feature by Lauren Smith of the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune on former LSU baseball star Austin Nola, who played in 773 minor league baseball games over eight seasons before being promoted to the Seattle Mariners on Father’s Day Weekend in June 2019.

Nola, the older brother of former LSU star pitcher Aaron Nola who has emerged as one of major league baseball workhorse starters with the Philadelphia Phillies, made 219 starts as the Tigers’ shortstop from 2009-12. He helped lead LSU to the College World Series as a freshman, was the SEC Tournament MVP as a sophomore and the NCAA’s Baton Rouge Regional Most Outstanding Player as a senior.

He was drafted in the 48th round out of Catholic High in 2008 by Colorado), in the 31st round after his junior season at LSU in 2011 by Toronto and finally in 5th round after his senior season in 2012 by Miami.

Here’s Smith’s story:

Austin Nola only became a catcher four years ago. He only became a major leaguer one year ago. He only became an everyday player one month ago.

But, as quickly as his baseball career has evolved in the majors, and as tough as a transition to the big leagues can be after so many years in the minors — Nola spent eight climbing the ranks in Miami’s and Seattle’s systems — he hasn’t stopped producing.

He’s caught 23 of the Mariners’ 31 games entering Thursday, has also filled in at first and third base, and is a reliable bat in the middle of the order night in and night out.

Nola consistently has his manager in awe. His pitchers are quick to credit him postgame when he helps them formulate a solid game plan or make a needed adjustment to get outs. His teammates in the dugout can always count on him for a quality at-bat.

Among the most valuable assets the Mariners have in their clubhouse right now, Nola is right near the top of the list.

“It’s not surprising,” Mariners ace Marco Gonzales said of his catcher’s production after a three-hit game Monday night in San Diego. “Every time he comes up to the plate and gets a knock, I’m shouting around to the guys around me, ‘That’s my favorite player.’

“Obviously what we’ve seen out of Kyle Lewis, he’s just electric, but if you want to have a guy who, as a younger player coming up, you model your work ethic, you model your attitude, your energy and just the way you go about the game, look no further than Austin Nola.”

He’s been a rock for the Mariners’ pitching staff and their hitters, Gonzales said, and it all starts with how Nola prepares when he arrives at the ballpark each day.

“What makes him great is what happens before and after the game,” Gonzales said. “He’s a rock solid dude.”

“I just have a routine, and try to stick to a routine and do the stuff that matters the most and gets me ready for the game,” Nola said recently. “I have a lot of great coaches and teammates to help me with preparation and getting things done in the short time we’re here, so the preparation’s the biggest thing.”

The offensive numbers he’s put up as the Mariners pass the halfway point in this shortened season have already proved his first big league season — when he hit .269/.342/.454 in 79 games after a summer promotion from Triple-A Tacoma as a 29-year-old rookie — wasn’t a fluke.

Nola looks controlled in the batter’s box. He makes good swing decisions. He can hit the fastballs like other big leaguers, but he can hit everything else, too.

“This guy has the most challenging practice I’ve ever seen,” manager Scott Servais said recently. “The things he does down the batting cage, the coaches often come up say, ‘I can’t believe what Nola was just working on right now. He will be ready to play tonight.’

“The back and forth — and that’s what gets hitters out. And obviously the velocity in today’s game, but the breaking balls, the sliders, the curveballs, he’s usually in a really good position to handle those and at least get the bat on the ball, which is a credit to him.”

Here’s what that preparation produces: Nola is hitting .315/.358/.562 with five doubles, a triple, five homers and 17 RBI in the 25 games he’s appeared in. He carries an active six-game hitting streak into Thursday’s doubleheader against the Padres, and had two three-hit games in his past three played. He had nine multi-hit games this season and only four where he failed to reach base at least once.

“I just have a routine, and try to stick to a routine and do the stuff that matters the most and gets me ready for the game,” Nola said recently. “I have a lot of great coaches and teammates to help me with preparation and getting things done in the short time we’re here, so the preparation’s the biggest thing.”

The offensive numbers he’s put up as the Mariners pass the halfway point in this shortened season have already proved his first big league season — when he hit .269/.342/.454 in 79 games after a summer promotion from Triple-A Tacoma as a 29-year-old rookie — wasn’t a fluke.

Nola looks controlled in the batter’s box. He makes good swing decisions. He can hit the fastballs like other big leaguers, but he can hit everything else, too.

“This guy has the most challenging practice I’ve ever seen,” manager Scott Servais said recently. “The things he does down the batting cage, the coaches often come up say, ‘I can’t believe what Nola was just working on right now. He will be ready to play tonight.’

“The back and forth — and that’s what gets hitters out. And obviously the velocity in today’s game, but the breaking balls, the sliders, the curveballs, he’s usually in a really good position to handle those and at least get the bat on the ball, which is a credit to him.”

His ability to consistently produce at the plate has made Nola a staple in the middle of Seattle’s lineup all season.

“He’s got a really good idea what the pitcher is going to do to him,” Servais said. “He doesn’t try to do too much. He really doesn’t. You’ve seen him take balls down the right field line, you see him pull balls out of the ballpark. Really nice to have a guy like that hitting in the middle of your lineup.

“In that five hole or six hole in your lineup, you’re going have a lot of RBI situations, Both the Kyle’s (Lewis and Seager) are getting on base very regularly. … You need some guys behind them to get some big two-out RBI, big hits, and the thing about Austin is you may not always get a hit, but you’re always going to get a good at-bat. He has a really good plan when he goes up there, and he doesn’t deviate from it.”

But, what perhaps impresses Servais and the Mariners the most is that Nola is putting up these numbers on offense while also spending so much time behind the plate, continuing to learn and work with Seattle’s pitchers.

Nola caught only seven games for Seattle last summer, instead playing first, second, third and in the outfield while Omar Narvaez and Tom Murphy split the time behind the plate. Narvaez was traded in the offseason, and Nola was expected to share catching duties with Murphy this season, but Murphy was still projected to be the Opening Day starter. Then Murphy injured his foot during summer camp — he is currently on the 45-day injured list — opening the door for Nola to be a full-time starter.

“I’m enjoying it,” Nola said. “I like getting back there. I learn so much from being back there a lot. The more you catch, they say you know you get up to 200 games in your career, and that’s when you start really being more comfortable back there, is what I heard from an old-time catching guy. I’ve just got to keep getting more games and keep getting more experience.”

Nola looks pretty comfortable already, having caught just 30 games in the majors across his two seasons. While he caught 171 games — and nearly 1,500 innings — in Double-A and Triple-A between the Marlins’ and Mariners’ systems, this season is by far the most he’s caught in the majors.

“He’s never caught this much,” Servais said. “I don’t think people understand that. He’s a converted guy. He’s playing almost every day behind the plate, and the bat really hasn’t slowed down that much yet. Oftentimes as catchers, the wear and tear, and the grind and the foul tips and everything adds up. That bat will slow down. But, this guy is an unbelievable worker. How he prepares for the game and what he does is some of the most unique stuff I’ve ever seen to get himself ready offensively. Some guys are just gifted they have pretty swings or they have really quick bats.

“Austin Nola is a self-made big leaguer. He really is, and he’s not looking back. He spent too much time in the minor leagues not to continue to try to improve and try to get better every day. He’s a great example for our young players. Sometimes with guys it doesn’t happen for them real quick, you’ve got to keep grinding, and that’s certainly what he’s done and it’s paying off for him, and we’re benefiting.”

https://www.thenewstribune.com/sports/mlb/seattle-mariners/article245273980.html

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.

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