Friday, January 28 2022

HOUSTON — Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson stands by the batting cage, looks at the 24-year-old kid taking swings and stops talking.

“I’ve got to be honest,’’ says Jackson, special advisor to the Houston Astros, “I never heard of this kid before. Never saw him play before. Man, has he ever gotten my attention. This kid can really play.”

The kid is Austin Riley.

He is Atlanta’s third baseman, and a big reason why they are playing in the World Series and up 3-2 over the Astros with Game 6 scheduled Tuesday tonight (8:09 p.m., Fox) at Minute Maid Park.

Riley, who hit .303 with 33 homers, 107 RBI and an .898 OPS, had the best season by an Atlanta third baseman since Hall of Famer Chipper Jones more than a decade ago. When All-Star outfielder Ronald Acuna went down July 10 with a season-ending knee injury, Riley stepped up. He hit .333 with a league-leading 94 hits and 65 RBI after the All-Star break, third-most in baseball. He joined Hall of Famers Eddie Matthews and Jones as the only Atlanta third basemen to hit at least 30 homers and 30 doubles at the age of 24 or younger.

Austin Riley celebrating driving in a run during the World Series vs. Houston.Austin Riley celebrating driving in a run during the World Series vs. Houston.

Austin Riley celebrating driving in a run during the World Series vs. Houston.

But he came ever so close to becoming Atlanta’s worst nightmare, haunting the organization for years to come.

Atlanta, believe it or not, nearly traded Riley this spring. The team debated whether it would be better off with a veteran, such as Josh Donaldson, Eduardo Escobar, Nolan Arenado or Luis Urias.

Team executives went around a room on a February morning, and argued for and against sticking with Riley, with some convinced he was never going to live up to the hype.

“There were all of these people in this auditorium,” Atlanta veteran third base coach Ron Washington told USA TODAY Sports, “giving their opinion, saying what he is, what he can do, and what he can’t do. They were saying that one day they may have to trade him.

THEN WHAT? Houston Astros playing to save their season – but what of the future?

“When they came to me, I said, ‘Stud.’ This kid is going to be a stud. He’s got the aptitude, the quickness, the work ethic and is a great human being.

“Guess what he’s turned into.

“He’s a (expletive) stud.’’

And maybe even a better human being, his teammates will tell you, and as normal as they come.

How many guys would go home to Southaven, Mississippi during the All-Star break to do a bunch of chores, and then return from the three days off sounding like they had instead been lounging around a Caribbean island?

“Power-washing his driveway and his house,” teammate Dansby Swanson, perhaps his closest friend on the team, says. “Really, that’s how he spent it. And he was so excited about it.

“He’s just a good ol’ boy from Mississippi. The thing I love about him is that he appreciates the small things. He doesn’t feel entitled to do anything. In today’s day and age, when we all think we should have everything, he doesn’t expect anything.

“I’m telling you, he’s a special guy, always in a good mood. Never once have I seen an example of him being a bad guy.’’

Riley married his high-school sweetheart, Anna, but was too intimidated to ask her out until his senior year — after she graduated and went to Mississippi State. The couple lives 30 minutes from each of their parents. His older sister, Emily, who just had a baby boy, is 15 minutes away. And younger brother Zach, who’s on the Mississippi State golf team, is three hours away.

To Riley, it’s heaven.

“We’re homebodies,’’ Riley says. “And she’s a saint for putting up with my baseball schedule and my hunting season. I just love to hunt, getting away from the constant everyday life of baseball, hunting by yourself in the woods, catching your breath, and not having to talk to anybody. That’s my getaway.

“And my wife puts up with it. She’s a good one. A real good one.’’

Well, if Riley keeps playing anything like this, she may have to put with his baseball gig for another decade or two.

After hitting 18 home runs in 80 games as a rookie, Riley struggled last season with eight homers and a .716 OPS in 51 games. But the 41st overall pick in the 2015 draft lived up to expectations this season, or actually exceeded them.

“He came up and had such a big splash and then kind of had to learn his way through the big leagues,” Swanson says. “In this day and age, as soon as we come up, we all have a comp. And we have a comp to someone of what our ceiling could be, and what they were in their prime. Then, when you’re not that immediately, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, well, this person’s not any good.’ “

Future Hall of Fame slugger Albert Pujols, who shares the same sports agency with Riley, scoffed at the notion Riley would be anything but a star.

“I worked out with this kid right out of high school,’’ Pujols says. “He was unbelievable. Sometime, with these young kids, and all of the talent, you expect so much in one year. You can’t give up on a kid like this. This kid is really special.

“This game is about adjustments and trying to get better. Well, this kid works his tail off. He deserves everything coming his way. They were smart to keep him.”

Riley, who some clubs thought would be better suited as a pitcher, throwing 94-to-96 mph in high school, began his professional career in 2015 going hitless in his first 22 plate appearances. Panic set in. John Hart, Atlanta’s GM at the time, kept calling scouting director Brian Bridges, who’s now with the San Francisco Giants.

“I’m getting a call every day from John,” Bridges says. “Did we make a mistake? You sure we didn’t make a mistake?’ I called (hitting instructor) Greg Walker, ‘Will you go down there and see what’s going on with this kid?’ “

Turns out, it was nothing more than growing pains.

It was no different than when Riley was promoted from rookie-level Danville to Class A Rome in 2016, to Class AA Mississippi in 2017, to Class AAAA Gwinnett in 2018 and the big leagues in 2019. His progression, starting as an 18-year-old, was always steady.

“I knew it was in there,’’ Riley says. “It just seems like every time I went to a different level, I eventually figured it out. I just felt like 2019 was a learning curve. And 2020 was one of those weird seasons.’’

Riley started this season slow, hitting .182 without an extra-base and one RBI in his first 15 games. He leaned on family and friends and dug deep into psyche, remembering the encouraging words from Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa during a pre-draft workout in 2015.

“I just had a quick conversation with him, and it’s nice he remembers it,’’ says La Russa, now manager of the Chicago White Sox, “but I guarantee you he’s the one who did the work with those coaches. God, is he ever a good-looking player now. He’s got power. He hits with two strikes. And he’s been impressive defensively.

“He reminds me of Scott Rolen. He’s the real deal.”

Riley’s stardom began to emerge after his rough start. Over the next 30 games, he hit .366 with seven home runs, 14 RBI and a 1.111 OPS.

“I hit the panic button in ’19, but this year when I started off real slow,’’ Riley said, “I was able to work through it. It was just a matter of getting consistent at-bats, experience, and learning how these pitchers are going to handle me.”

If folks weren’t paying attention to his prowess during the regular season, they sure during the World Series. He is hitting .381 with three doubles, three RBI and a .905 OPS. One night he’s robbing Alex Bregman of a double. The next, he’s getting three hits.

No wonder fans chant “MVP’’ when he steps to the plate in Atlanta. The votes are already in, and Riley won’t win the MVP award, but certainly should finish among the top six .

“That would be huge,’’ Riley says. “It just blows me away. The struggles I have gone through, and to have the success I had this year, to hear the MVP chants is crazy. But to hit .300, that’s probably the most shocking thing.’’

The entire Riley family, says his dad, still has trouble believing it. Wasn’t he just living at home a few years ago, deer and turkey hunting, and losing to his little brother in golf?

“It hasn’t sunken in yet,’’ says Mike Riley, a punter at Mississippi State who was cut by the Detroit Lions, and worked for a Memphis truck line company. “Probably, after the fact we’ll reflect on it and look back and say, ‘Hey, that was our son in the World Series at the age 24.’ “

Maybe he’ll even one of baseball’s best-known stars, with some commercial endorsements coming his way.

Then again, the only endorsements that would interest Riley would be from hunting companies.

“Some guys will probably buy some pretty nice things with their World Series shares,” Swanson says, “but Riles, I figure all he’ll do is buy some hunting gear.

“That’s what will make him the happiest.

“That’s my guy. I love him.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Series: Atlanta Braves nearly traded Austin RIley before season

Source: Yahoo Sports

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