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Nate Russ had pretty much given up on his dream of playing professional baseball.
The former Central star had hoped to get drafted after pitching in college for Montevallo. A successful stint in an independent league also had raised Russ’ hopes of getting signed by a major league club, but those opportunities never materalized.
Russ went on to graduate from Montevallo and was getting ready to put his playing days behind him. But one last effort changed his plans drastically, leading to Russ signing a minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves. He is now pitching for the Braves’ rookie league team in Orlando, Fla.
“The last few weeks have been crazy,” Russ said. “This is not really something I expected to happen. I grew up a big Braves fan, so to be in their organization is really special. This whole experience has been surreal.”
Russ finished his collegiate career at Montevallo in 2008. He then played in an independent league in Arizona and was expecting to sign with the Kansas City Royals after enjoying a banner season.
When that deal fell through, Russ went back to Montevallo to finish his education, graduating this past May. He was working as an instructor at Bases Loaded Training Facility in Birmingham when a co-worker found out Russ still had the desire to pitch.
“A guy I work with used to be in player development with the Chicago White Sox,” Russ said. “He told me that if I wanted to play he had a contact that could help me. He got me several workouts, and I was surprised at how well I threw.
“I didn’t really have any expectations going in. I just wanted to do it so that 10 years from now I wouldn’t be wondering what might have happened if I had tried. I didn’t want to have any regrets.”
Russ was amazed at how good his arm felt and how hard he was able to throw after not playing for a full year. His fastball, which was normally 90-91 miles per hour was now hitting 93 and 94 consistently.
“I’m not sure how to explain that,” he said. “Maybe the time off helped my arm recover. I had also added about 15 pounds since college, so maybe that made the difference.”
Russ soon found himself in Rome, Ga., along with 122 other hopefuls, working out for the Braves. He faced three hitters, retiring all three, including two on strikeouts.
The Braves called Russ the next day, offering him a chance to sign. Two days late, Russ was on his way to Orlando to join the Braves team in the Gulf Coast League.
Russ got his first chance to pitch professionally last Saturday. He pitched a scoreless inning, allowing one hit, walking one and recording one strikeout.
“I was really nervous at first,” he said. “On the first batter I didn’t come close to throwing a strike, but then I picked him off first, which helped me settle down. I was really pleased with the way I threw.”
Russ pitched again Thursday, earning a save with another scoreless inning.
The adjustment to playing pro baseball has been a smooth one for Russ.
“It’s a lot more laid back than in college,” he said. “You’re responsible for what you do. We get to the field between 6-6:30 a.m., and we’re on the field by 8:30. We do our conditioning and throwing and then play around noon every day. It’s busy, but I’m enjoying it.”
He is on the same team with many of Atlanta’s top draft picks, including it’s No. 1 pick, outfielder Matt Lipka. At 23, Russ is a few years older than most of his teammates. He also did not have the luxury of a huge signing bonus that the top draft picks received.
“I tell people I pretty much signed for a car ride here and a hotel room,” he said. “But it’s an opportunity, which is all I wanted. I’ll play for peanuts — I just want to play.”
While Russ is a long way from taking the mound at Turner Field in Atlanta, he is confident that he has what it takes to eventually get to the majors. He hopes to turn some heads the rest of the season and begin the process of moving up through the minor leagues.
“The scout that signed me told me that if I maintained my velocity and ability to spot the ball that he didn’t expect me to be in Orlando very long,” Russ said. “He said that if I work hard I have a chance to make it in the big leagues as a short reliever.
“I’m a little older than most of the other guys here, so I hope to move up quickly. I feel like if I produce I’ll be able to move up. I’ve always dreamed of pitching in Atlanta and I still hope to play there one day.”
Jeff McIntyre can be reached at 256-740-5737 or firstname.lastname@example.org.