Late on June 27, A.J. Nola and his wife, Stacie, were in Tallahassee, Florida, on their way to see their son Austin play for the Double-A Jacksonville Suns.
They were three hours away and called to let him know.
“He said, ‘I’ll be on my way to Iowa in the morning. I got promoted to the Zephyrs,’ ” A.J. recalled. “We were just screaming!”
Nola, a shortstop, had been promoted to NOLA.
He’s just a step away from Major League Baseball and an hour away from the family home in Baton Rouge, where he was an all-state pick four years at Catholic High before a standout career at LSU.
His promotion gives the Nolas two sons in Triple-A; Austin joins younger brother Aaron, the No. 7 overall pick in last year’s draft by Philadelphia, who last month was promoted to Lehigh Valley of the International League.
About 40 family members are slated to be at Zephyr Field on Saturday for Austin’s first game in New Orleans as a Zephyr. The Z’s begin a four-game series against the Iowa Cubs on the Fourth of July.
“I have a lot of family and friends there and have yet to travel back to Louisiana during the season in my time of professional baseball,” he said. “So it will be different.”
Nola, who played on LSU’s 2009 College World Series championship team and was drafted in the fifth round by Miami in 2012, was promoted when two Marlins were injured. Third baseman Martin Prado injured his shoulder June 15. Then, slugging outfielder Giancarlo Stanton broke a bone in his right hand while batting June 26. The injuries resulted in outfielder Cole Gillespie and shortstop Miguel Rojas being called up to Miami on June 27.
“It’s all an opportunity, and I will take advantage of this opportunity in every way,” said Nola, 25. “I just think that you can learn from every chance you get, and I’m blessed to have this chance to make a move on up.”
Nola has been reunited with manager Andy Haines, who guided him in 2013 with Single-A Jupiter of the Florida State League and last year in the Arizona Fall League. Haines said he pushed to have Nola on the Zephyrs’ Opening Day roster after he helped Jacksonville win the Southern League title last season with his usual splendid play in the field.
Nola led Southern League shortstops in games (125), fielding percentage (.962), fielding chances (583), putouts (180) and assists (381) while making just 22 errors, which also was tops in the league and is the gold standard for infielders. His fielding percentage this season is .969.
“He’s got to be as sure-handed an infielder as you’re going to get,” Haines said. “He takes tremendous pride in defense. His instincts and his ability to be in the right spot at the right time is off the charts.”
Nola was known as a slick-fielding shortstop at LSU, but he comes to the Zephyrs with a .211 batting average. Before this season, he had made progress at the plate in each of his minor league seasons; last year, he batted .259 with 21 doubles, five triples, one home run, 68 runs and 53 RBIs. He also tied for the Southern League lead with 77 walks.
He batted .320, .296 and .299 in his final three years at LSU.
“(Double-A) is a tough league,” Nola said. “I definitely feel there’s been a lot of growth there, just learning from your struggles.”
Nola is no stranger to Zephyr Field, having played there in each of his four years at LSU in the Wally Pontiff Jr. Classic.
“I remember it being a big park, but we still hit balls out with the aluminum bats,” he said, chuckling.
In the field, he’ll be filling some big shoes: Rojas was the team’s best player. His slick glove was one reason New Orleans led the Pacific Coast League in fielding percentage (.984) heading into Friday’s games. The Z’s were second in double plays turned (94, four behind leader Albuquerque) after leading until recently.
Nola said he made his way over to Rojas to pick his brain during spring training.
“There are things he does really well that you can learn from,” Nola said. “He’s a natural defender. We talked about charging the ball, moving to the ball. It was another confirmation from a man who has done it. You learn new things from guys that have played a lot longer than you have, and I’ve been blessed to be in big league camps the past couple of years. And I feel (Marlins infield coach) Perry Hill is one of the best there is. He’s taught me a lot.”
Haines said Nola will learn more in Triple-A, where many of the players are older and have played in the majors.
When Nola was promoted, it appeared he may not be in New Orleans long. The Zephyrs’ deep infield was the reason he returned to Jacksonville to begin the season, and Prado was due to come off the 15-day disabled list June 30. But now he’s not expected to return until after the All-Star Game on July 14.
Haines said he expects A.J., Stacie and the rest of the Nola family will be able to see Austin play in New Orleans for the rest of the season.
“Unless something crazy happens, where they send Rojas and (second baseman Derek) Dietrich down, I expect him to be here,” Haines said. “He’ll play shortstop, second and some third. He’s already capable of helping the big league team.
“I think this will be a great experience for him in his progression.”