Former LSU standout Austin Nola is heading into the New Orleans Zephyrs’ home opener on Friday batting .172.
Last season, Nola was in a similar situation after being called up from Double-A Jacksonville on June 28. However, playing at home, he got multiple hits in three consecutive games, hit better than .300 much of the season and finished the Pacific Coast League season with a .280 average, his best in three minor league seasons.
“His swing has been fine,” Zephyrs hitting coach Paul Phillips said. “He’s hit some line-drive outs that, had they fallen in, his average would be much higher.”
His swing certainly was fine in Sunday’s final game of the Z’s season-opening series at Omaha. Nola had two hits, one to left field and one to right, and drove in three runs in a 7-4 victory that gave New Orleans a four-game split.
“Every year you have to make adjustments and learn how the game is going to overtake you,” said Nola, more of a doubles gap hitter who was drafted by the Miami Marlins in the fifth round in 2012. “For me, I’m pulling the ball better but also trying to use all parts of the field.”
Phillips said he’s been been working on a few basics with Nola, who struck out just 40 times in 207 at-bats with the Zephyrs last season.
“He’s staying in the middle of the plate, the middle of the field,” Phillips said. “I think he’s been getting in a good balanced position, picking good pitches to swing at and using his legs to generate power.”
Nola’s younger brother Aaron, a standout former LSU pitcher and the No. 7 overall pick in 2014, was called up last season by the Philadelphia Phillies. Austin has been trying to show the Marlins he is ready, too.
In spring training, he batted .321 (9-for-28) in 24 games, getting two doubles and a triple, with an .831 on-base-plus-slugging- percentage average. The performance was after he’d finished his 69-game Zephyrs stint with a strong final push in September, batting .348 in the seven games.
First-year Zephyrs manager Arnie Beyeler said Nola may have the potential to be on par with players such as Boston Red Sox star second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Marlins versatile infielder Miguel Rojas, whom Beyeler discribed as just good, knowlegeble baseball players. Pedroia, the 2008 American League MVP, is considered an above average contact hitter with a low strikeout rate who can surprise with his power and is a good defensive player. Rojas, good defensively, showed significant improvement at the plate when he went from Class Double A to Triple A.
“(Nola) is a baseball player,” Beyeler said. “The guys in spring training were raving about him. His hitting is improving, which I understand he needed to do.
“He’s a good player for a guy who can move the ball around and bunt and hit and run and do a lot of things. He knows how to play the game, which makes him a valuable guy.”
Last season, Nola mostly played shortstop but spent about a third of his games at second base. During Marlins spring training, he played shorstop and third base. To enhance his value even more, the plan is to play him some games in the oufield.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Nola said. “It’s always live and learn when you’re playing new positions. You’re seeing things from a different perspective. … So, it’s always good to learn different positions because you never know where they’ll need you, and that’s all that matters.”
His ability to make contact makes him a classic No. 2 hitter, able to advance the leadoff man. Since this season began, though, Nola has batted near the end of the order.
The Zephyrs have been going with leadoff-type hitters at the top of the order, with speedy outfielders Isaac Galloway and Kenny Wilson batting first and second, respectively. Then come the power hitters.
“(Nola) can do several things, he can run good enough, he puts the ball in play,” Phillips said. “As of now, we’ve been using him in the bottom of the slots to turn the order over.”