Austin Riley’s booming bat and a hasty position change got him to the big leagues Wednesday.
Riley’s 13 home runs in his past 18 games for Triple-A Gwinnett screamed out for a spot on the Braves’ roster. But with his natural position of third base occupied by Josh Donaldson, Riley’s big-league debut came at a position he had played only five times in his life.
He played left field one game in spring training this year and four games for Gwinnett in the past week. “That’s it,” he said of his outfield experience. Even so, he made his big-league debut in left field Wednesday night at SunTrust Park.
The Braves summoned him after center fielder Ender Inciarte left Tuesday’s game with a strained lower back. Inciarte was placed on the 10-day injured list Wednesday. Ronald Acuna moved from left field to center in Inciarte’s absence, opening left field for Riley.
Riley got a phone call from Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill late Tuesday night in Buffalo, N.Y., informing him of his promotion. It caught him by surprise, despite his International League lead in home runs (15), RBIs (39), extra-base hits (25), total bases (98) and runs (32).
“Actually, I had no clue (of an impending promotion),” Riley said after arriving at SunTrust Park. “Yeah, I had been doing well in Triple-A. But Donaldson is here and the outfield is pretty packed and Freddie (Freeman) is at first. So I was kind of waiting my turn.
“I hate that Ender went down, but I’m happy to be here and hopefully can help out.”
Long-term, the Braves still see Riley as a third baseman. In fact, he played third base for Gwinnett on Tuesday night. But he had started four of the Stripers’ previous five games in left field, a clear sign the Braves were intent on expanding his potential avenues for reaching the big leagues. He also has gotten some playing time at first base.
Riley probably hasn’t played the outfield enough for anyone to fairly assess how he’ll fare there. But he expressed optimism he can handle it.
“It wasn’t super-easy,” he said of the transition. “(But) I tell everybody that going from third base to the outfield, it’s a little bit more relaxing, everything kind of slows down a little bit, so it’s not bad.
“I think I can be pretty good (defensively). … I think the biggest (challenge) is going to be my speed, obviously -- I’m not the fastest guy out there. But if I can really hone in on jumps, seeing the ball off the bat, I can handle myself out there fine.”
Riley expects to benefit from playing alongside Acuna, a former minor-league teammate.
“We obviously know he’s a third baseman by trade, but he can play the outfield,” Acuna, speaking through a translator, said of Riley.
Although Riley principally will play the outfield for now, he also will be used at third base when Donaldson gets a rest, manager Brian Snitker said.
In any case, it is Riley’s offensive potential that truly excites the Braves and their fans.
“I felt good down at Triple-A. I was swinging the bat well,” said Riley, an understatement considering the statistics. “I worked on a few things, kind of cut down the strikeouts, (made) more consistent contact and actually brought the walks up a little bit. Those are the goals I was going for.”
Said Snitker: “It’s exciting to get him up here and see him.”
Riley, 22, made his big-league debut with about 40 friends and family members from Mississippi in the stands at SunTrust Park.
“Just walking in the clubhouse, finally saying I’m here, it’s just been awesome,” Riley said before Wednesday’s game. “Everyone says it’s easy to get to the big leagues, but to stay is the hard part. I’ve still got a lot of things to work on.”
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