BOSTON — Phil La Stella was in Pawtucket, R.I., to see his son Tommy hit a home run for the Braves’ Triple-A Gwinnett team on Tuesday night, and probably figured that was about as good as things could possibly get for a while.
He was wrong.
Second-base prospect Tommy La Stella was promoted to the majors by the Braves on Wednesday morning and in the lineup for the opener of a two-game series Wednesday night against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
“Unbelievable,” said La Stella, as he suited up Wednesday afternoon in the visitor’s clubhouse of the venerable Fenway, a ballpark he had only visited once for a workout when he was playing in the Cape Cod Summer League. “Growing up in New Jersey I certainly watched a lot of Yankee-Red Sox games. I have tremendous respect for this organization, and obviously such a historical ballpark like this — I couldn’t think of a better place to make my debut.”
After getting majors-worst production from their second basemen for the first two months of the season, the Braves decided not to wait any longer to bring up La Stella, a move that many observers had anticipated for several weeks as Dan Uggla’s slump deepened and backup infielders Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky didn’t make an impact.
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Pastornicky was optioned to Gwinnett to open a roster spot for La Stella, 25, who hit .293 with a .384 on-base percentage in 47 games at Triple-A, with eight extra-base hits (one homer) and 23 RBIs. He’s considered an adequate defensive player.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez followed the strategy of his mentor, former Braves manager Bobby Cox, who usually thrust call-ups into the lineup as soon as they arrived to avoid having time to get nervous sitting around and watching.
“The great thing was he was just up the road in Pawtucket,” Gonzalez said. “We talked about this last night, talked about it on the plane a little bit. (General manager) Frank (Wren) goes, ‘Well, talk it over with the coaches, and when you land shoot me a text, and tell me what you guys think.’ And so we did.
“I talked to Frank this morning and we called Brian Snitker this morning. Got him in the Town Car and got him here.”
Gonzalez smiled and added, “I’m glad we brought him to this small venue, low-key, let him kind of ease his way in.”
Fenway is a cathedral of baseball, and the Red Sox happened to be honoring their 2004 World Series team before Wednesday night’s game. Something else to add to the memory of his debut for La Stella, who had mentioned Tuesday how great it would have been if he’d had a chance to play for the Braves when they visited Boston this week.
“I was telling my dad, man, I would’ve loved to have played in Fenway,” La Stella recalled of their Tuesday conversation. “Because I knew the team was coming up. I had no idea I was going to get the opportunity to.”
Snitker called La Stella up to the manager’s hotel room in Pawtucket Wednesday morning and told him the news, that he was headed to The Show.
Phil and Tommy’s sister Christine, who was also at the minor league game Tuesday, drove from Pawtucket to Boston on Wednesday afternoon. Tommy’s mother, Jane La Stella, booked a flight for herself and Tommy’s brother Mike as soon as they found out, and they were in Boston by late afternoon.
An eighth-round draft pick in 2011 out of Coastal Carolina, La Stella has a .322 career average and .407 on-base percentage in four minor league seasons, with 63 doubles, 14 triples, 21 homers and 167 RBIs in 288 games.
While the New Jersey native had a modest .359 slugging percentage in 198 plate appearances this season in Triple-A, La Stella slugged in the high .470s last season in high Single-A and Double-A ball. More importantly for the Braves, he’s a contact hitter for a team that can certainly use that in a lineup with a lot of free-swinging power hitters.
La Stella has only 102 strikeouts with 136 walks in 1,196 plate appearances in the minors.
“He’s got great plate discipline, which you can see from his numbers, the base on balls to strikeouts,” Gonzalez said. “It’s good to be able to have that in your lineup, just a little change. Hopefully he gives us a little something. This guy’s got a good eye, he walks, he hits some balls to the gap, and if you make a mistake he’ll run you out of the ballpark.
“And it’s good that he came to spring training with us, been around the guys a little bit, feels comfortable.”
Braves second basemen hit a collective .165 before Wednesday, tied with Padres second basemen for lowest average in the majors. Braves second basemen have a majors-worst .250 slugging percentage and just a .253 on-base percentage with three homers, 15 RBIs, 19 walks and 51 strikeouts in 176 at-bats through 51 games.