ROME, GA — The Atlanta Braves went into full rebuild mode last season. John Hart took the helm and began a new era of Braves baseball, getting a lot of big money stars off the books in exchange for a bevy of elite, young prospects. They also made a big haul in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft.
Two of those names were on display Monday night in Rome as the Braves took on the West Virginia Power. The No. 28 overall selection, right-hander Mike Soroka, took to the hill to battle Mitch Keller in the marquee South Atlantic League matchup of the night. While many thought the showdown would be a pitcher’s duel between Baseball America’s No. 52 prospect (Keller) and No. 78 prospect (Soroka), it was a Justin Ellison walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth that completed the Rome Braves tremendous comeback and 7-6 victory.
“It was an intense game,” Rome Braves third baseman and designated hitter Austin Riley said. “We started off down. That’s what this team is all about, we fight until the very last out. We got the hit we needed and the rest is history.”
Riley, of course, was another 2015 first-round selection for the Atlanta Braves. He was selected 41st overall out of DeSoto Central High School in Southaven, Mississippi. It was quite appropriate that he landed with the Braves organization.
“I really didn’t have a favorite team, but I had favorite players,” Riley said of who he watched in his youth. “You had to like Chipper, because you know, he’s one of the greatest. That was my first pro game I ever went to, it was a Braves game. So I lucked out where I landed.
“It was a dream come true. You see your name on TV. It’s something you never forget.”
Riley was a two-way player in high school, a good infielder and even better pitcher. Many felt Riley, armed with a 90s fastball, would prosper as a pitcher, but he and the Braves had other plans. He would transition into a full-time third baseman, leaving pitching behind and seemingly not missing it at all.
“I do not,” Riley said adamantly with a laugh on whether or not he missed pitching. “I like playing everyday, I love the grind and the hot corner. I like always being active.”
He got off to a slow start in his 2015 Gulf Coast League debut, going hitless — 0-for-16 to be precise — in his first five professional games, making some wonder if perhaps pitching were the right move. A July 31 move to Danville in the Appalachian League saw an entirely different Riley. He registered at least one hit in his first four games — this time going 7-for-17 — and did not cool off the rest of the way, throwing in a 12-game hitting streak as the season wound down. His 30-game Appy League debut was more of what the Braves had hoped for, as he slashed .351/.443/.586 with five home runs and nine doubles in 111 at bats.
A promotion to Rome in 2016 would see another slow start. Despite an eight-game hitting streak in mid-April, Riley saw his first month come to a close with a .244/.272/.419 line and just two home runs. He struck out 30 times and walked just four, clearly not himself at the plate.
“In the Appy League, it was more fastball counts,” Riley said. “If it was 3-1 or 2-1, you knew that the fastball was coming, you could almost cheat a little bit. Here, you’re not always getting that. They have better command and better offspeed pitches for strikes.”
Riley — a workaholic who people described as one of the most competitive players on the squad — made some adjustments to catch up with the more advanced pitching of the Sally. He has been on fire in the second half of 2016. He hit .293 in the month of June and continues to hit in July.
Monday night saw the improvements in Riley’s play. With the Braves trailing 4-0 in the third, the 19-year old went to the opposite field to drive in two runs and begin the Braves comeback. Later he showed his improved patience, drawing an eight-pitch walk, and laying off some close pitches.
“I backed off the plate, gave my hands a little freedom,” Riley said. “I chased some pitches earlier in the year, but my discipline is a little better now. It was all about getting the reps, getting used to this type of pitching and getting used to the offspeed. I’m starting to hit the offspeed well, and I’m just trying to continue to do that.”
For more of my interview with Riley, head on over to Today’s Knuckleball by clicking on the link below: