Has the stream of stories about the next big Brave growing in some minor league hothouse left you just the least bit jaded yet?
Enough, already, you say, with all the looking ahead. How about some present-tense dominion that might hold sway in places like, say, Dodger Stadium?
A person has to wait for so much in this life — for real wisdom, for the next decent sitcom, for a 401K with a balance that doesn’t read like a lunch receipt. Why must you also have to wait so long for a baseball team to fully come of age?
But, wait, bear with us, there is another story of youth in ascent to be told. Another possible piece to fill out this jigsaw puzzle of a still-ongoing rebuild. Anyone following the flow of the Braves’ pipeline will immediately know the name: Austin Riley.
He’s waiting, too, so close to his goal that he can almost taste the pregame spread at SunTrust Park.
Riley’s coming off a couple of weeks that, while patently unsustainable, have been riveting. How about 11 home runs over his past 15 games (through Friday), 17 extra-base hits altogether, 24 RBIs and a .431 batting average for the Gwinnett Stripers, the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate? Hope you got him on your International League fantasy team.
“I’ve gone on tears where I’ve got a lot of hits, but as far as the home runs and the doubles, nothing quite like this,” Riley said. “The last couple weeks it felt like everything I hit was either a home run or a double. That’s what they signed me for. That’s what they want me to do. I’m happy I can do it. The swing feels good, and I’m kind of figuring some things out.”
Among the seven home runs Riley has smote since just the start of May was one that flew the left-field scoreboard in Charlotte, measured at 492 feet. Replays show the Charlotte catcher standing up and spinning in disgust/disbelief the moment Riley made contact, and the umpire lurching from his post trying to track the launch, like this was something he really needed to tell his kids about one day. While Riley merely began his trot around the bases.
The distance was not exaggerated, we are assured. “It looked like 500 feet. That ball got small in a hurry,” said one witness, Stripers hitting coach Bobby Magallanes.
“That was probably the longest,” Riley said, when asked how that one measured up to the others in his portfolio. “That’s the one that has been the most talked about.”
Wednesday back at Coolray Field, Riley hit two more – the longest “just” 426 feet – for his fourth multi-home run game of a young season. Riley home runs are like grapes, they come in bunches.
So, who even remembers that he started this last Braves spring training with five consecutive strikeouts? That wound has healed without a trace of a scar.
And more good news: This masher comes off as grounded as a lightning rod. Just 22, he gets asked by teammates exactly why he opted to get married this past offseason at such a tender age. They just don’t get it – but it’s really so simple. Those young single guys don’t know what they’re missing.
“Nobody knows what a minor league season is, especially how it affects a relationship, unless you’ve done it. Anna was very supportive, always there for me. In my heart, I know I wouldn’t find another relationship like it. And she felt the same way,” Riley says.
“She never wants to talk about baseball. We’re involved with the game every day. If I had a bad day, we don’t have to talk about it. She has a great feel for everything.”
And he’s got the back story that might just ring reassuringly familiar to Braves fans: A third baseman – although the Braves are trying him at multiple positions in the minors — who grew up in the South and whose father was, and still is, his most trusted hitting instructor. Turns out, he at least shares a significant part of a bio with Chipper Jones.
Mike Riley, who runs a travel-ball organization back home in Hernando, Miss., gave up baseball at Mississippi State and concentrated on his punting. But he maintained a fascination for the mechanics of the baseball swing, and he began imparting them to his oldest son about as soon as the boy could wrap two little hands around a bat. The two of them are so close they talk every day after a game, sometimes twice a day. The discussions lately have been lighthearted. One of Mike’s biggest challenges these days is convincing other family members that Austin probably isn’t going to hit two homers every day for the rest of his career. (OK, he went 0-for-4 on Thursday.)
Dad will be pleased to note that the maturity his son has displayed in his private life has been spilling over into a growing sensibility at the plate. Hitting coach Magallanes cites a heightened plate awareness in his young charge, leading to one Striper who doesn’t go fishing nearly as often as he used to.
The strikeout percentage that was high as 29 percent last season at Gwinnett is at a far more palatable 21 percent here through Thursday. Yeah, those two home runs Wednesday were nice. But also indicative of a more complete Riley was the bases-load walk he took that same night.
“I can just tell by my at-bats that I’m not striking out near as much as what I was last year. That’s the biggest thing they harp on, if I can get my strikeouts down I think things are going to take care of themselves.”
While no one is measuring Riley for any Gold Glove awards just yet, he credits the Braves’ Socrates of infield coaches, Ron Washington, for big improvements in dexterity and thus, his fielding. And Mike Riley is quick to correct those who might dismiss his kid as an outfielder: “He’s more athletic than those who just see a big guy out there and don’t really know him. I’m confident he can play there, for sure.”
And yet we must ask: For all the noise Riley’s making at Triple-A, if it doesn’t get him to the big club just 35 miles away, did it really happen?
He can count the reasons he isn’t there now, at the position for which he is projected. “I always tell everybody they have 23 million reasons why I’m not playing at third,” he said, referring to the one-year contract the Braves gave Josh Donaldson to man that corner.
The Braves are moving Riley around — he played in left field at home Wednesday, and back at third on Thursday — in an attempt to prepare him for a promotion in case an opening shows itself at any one of multiple positions. At his current pace, that bat is going to be difficult to deny.
“If I got to play catcher in the big leagues to get there, I will,” only three-quarters joking.
He has watched the rapid rise made by contemporaries Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies, admired the energy and joy they have brought to the big club and has used them as handy examples.
“Just shows what I can do if I continue to improve and continue to work, I could potentially do some of the stuff that they have accomplished,” Riley said.
So, he waits. And back home in Mississippi, a family is on high alert, ready to scramble to any given major league ballpark when the call for Riley does come. “We’re eagerly waiting,” Mike said. “When it happens, we’ll be ready to go. But it’s like we tell him, just stay the course and stick with the process.”
While they, along with scores of fans, await, the next big Brave issues a refrain of patience and confidence that is common to all these kind of stories. You’ve heard it all before. But, it turns out, hope never grows old or tired. So, let’s hear some more.
“I think I still have some stuff to work on and if I can work on it now and not worry about it when I’m up there (in the majors), then that’s going to make it that much better,” Riley said. “The goal is once I get there, I stay there, and not have to come back down.
“I’m fine-tuning some things, polishing up some stuff. My time’s coming. And when it does, I’m going to show them what I got.”
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