NEW YORK – About 15 minutes down the Grand Central Parkway from St. John’s University, where Tommy La Stella let after his freshman year when he didn’t get a scholarship he believed he deserved, the New Jersey native was back in Queens on Monday as the Braves’ starting second baseman.
He was back with a .294 batting average and .379 on-base percentage in his first 36 major league league games entering Monday’s series opener against the New York Mets.
Born in Westwood and raised in Closter, N.J., just across the George Washington Bridge from New York City, La Stella slept at his parents’ house and drove to the ballpark Monday.
“It’s cool being back home,” he said. “It’s nice being around the family.”
A reporter and photographer from the local paper in Closter were at his parents’ home Monday, interviewing his dad Phil, a doctor who grew up a hardcore Yankees fan and taught La Stella the importance of Mickey Mantle. He also set up a pitching machine in the basement at home, where young Tommy would take countless hours of batting practice.
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“(The newspaper photographer) got some stuff with the basement with the pitching machines and stuff like that,” La Stella said of the visit from the local newspaper Monday. “It was just a basement, the walls were all falling apart. I guess they wanted to get a shot of that.”
Monday marke the first time the kid who grew up a Yankees fan like dad had ever been to Citi Field, and La Stella could barely remember the only time he went to the Mets’ since-razed former home, Shea Stadium.
“It might have been for a birthday part, to be honest with you,” he said, smiling, “to give you an idea of how young I was.”
The 25-year-old has come a long way since leaving St. John’s in frustration, transferring to Coastal Carolina, and playing two seasons there before the Braves selected him in the eighth round of the 2011 draft.
La Stella was in his third full season of minor league ball when he got called up from Triple-A Gwinnett six weeks ago while the Braves were in Boston. He literally had only hours to get to Boston for his first game, but his parents, brother and sister all made it to Fenway Park in time see him get two hits in his debut.
He had far more family members and friends coming to Citi Field during the four-game series.
“Everybody — mom, dad, brother, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents,” he said before batting practice Monday afternoon. “Over these next four days it’s going to be pretty hectic. I’m still working on some (tickets) right now. Good thing is a lot of people have gotten in touch with me and said, ‘We’re coming to the game, we’ll be sitting in blah blah blah.’ A lot of people have gone and gotten their own tickets. It’s taken some of the stress off me. That’s nice.”
Handling the stress of playing hasn’t presented much of a problem for La Stella, although he did make a costly error in his second game and endured a 3-for-41 hitting slump over 11 games, including eight games in the leadoff or No. 2 spot before manager Fredi Gonzalez moved him back down to the seventh spot where he had initially flourished.
La Stella hit .411 (23-for-56) with a .476 OBP in his first 16 games, and after that slump he hit at a .379 clip (11-for-29) with four doubles, a triple, six RBIs and a .514 OBO in nine games since moving back to the seventh spot.
The left-handed hitter had an even higher average (.348) in 23 at-bats against lefty pitchers than his .282 in 103 at-bats against right-handers. And after several weeks of replacing La Stella with Ramiro Pena for defense in the last two innings when the Braves led, Gonzalez has kept the rookie in the game lately after showing his defense was not a liability.
“I told him that at the beginning, this is not any reflection on you, this is a reflection on me until I start getting more comfortable watching you play,” Gonzalez said of the earlier defensive substitutions. “And I think we’ve kind of kept him in the last seven or eight games.
“He’s not Roberto Alomar (at second base), but I mean, who is? There’s only one of those. But he’s OK. If he gets to it he’s going to catch it. His arm is accurate, he’s turned a couple of nice double plays. So we let him play a little bit.”