Nick Natoli signed with the Red Sox as an non-drafted free agent after graduating from Towson University in 2011 and has embraced his role as a utility man who doesn't just move around the diamond - he'll go field to field when necessary.
"You have to have fun with it," he said. "I love this game and I plan to be around the game until I hate it or they release me."
Natoli put truth to those words Friday, battling tough weather conditions, a poor night's sleep and the disappointment of being pulled away from family and friends at the last minute to piece together a career night. The 25-year-old infielder recorded his first five-hit game since college, helping Double-A Portland outlasted the B-Mets, 10-9.
Natoli was lying in bed in Salem, Va., around 12:30 a.m. Friday morning when his phone rang. It was the Red Sox, informing him that his services were needed at Double-A to fill the spot created when J.C. Linares was placed on the seven-day disabled list.
Natoli had been with Class A Advanced Salem, but the trip up the Minor League ladder wasn't timed perfectly. Salem was scheduled to leave Saturday for Frederick, Md., which is just down the road from his hometown of Ellicott City. His family, including parents Tonya and Tony, and his girlfriend were among those who were supposed to meet him in Frederick when the team arrived.
"It's nice moving up and playing Double-A and helping out, but at 12:30, when you're sleeping or ready to go to bed and about to go see family ... " he said, trailing off.
Natoli was told he needed to get to the Salem clubhouse by 4 a.m. and to the airport by 5 a.m. for a 6 a.m. flight. He finally got a little sleep on an hour-long flight to Detroit, where he was greeted by a two-hour layover. He slept again on the one-hour flight to Binghamton, arriving at the team hotel at 12:30 p.m., with a few hours to spare until the team headed to NYSEG Stadium.
"Days like these, you just glide through them," Natoli said. "I figured I'd be playing, that's usually how it goes. You have to have fun with it. I got up and it was a long day, a long process."
It's become part of the gig for Natoli, who has embraced his role as the Red Sox's go-to emergency fill-in. He can play all four infield positions and has expressed no reservations about filling the role, something that's helped him carve a career despite discouraging odds. He split 2011 between the Rookie-Level Gulf Coast League and Class A Short-Season New York-Penn League, then moved to the Class A South Atlantic League to begin 2012.
After 48 games, a spot opened with Double-A Portland and Natoli, in just his first full pro season, filled the void. He hit .151 in 24 games, but he did what he was brought up to do -- fill a void with his flexibility.
"I know my role," he said. "Guys who don't understand their role are the ones who struggle. I know that if I'm going to make it to the Major Leagues, it will be as a utility player filling a key position when someone gets hurt, stuff like that. That has kind of made it easier for me the last year or so."
Natoli's home base this season has been in Salem, but this weekend marks the second time he's been rushed into action at a higher level. He was sent to Triple-A Pawtucket on May 10 when a roster spot opened, went 0-for-2 in one game and returned to the Carolina League.
He isn't sure how long his stay with Portland will last -- "They told me it could be less than a week," Natoli said. He made an excellent impression Friday, though, driving in two runs and scoring two more in his first five-hit game since college.
"I was around these guys last year and in Spring Training and know them, so it's not such a nerve-racking moment," he said, "but when you're with a new club, you want to earn your keep, whether you're there for a month or two days. It's nice to help out."
The game-time temperature was 43 degrees and it rained for most of the night, something that helped Portland's Michael Almanzar hit an inside-the-park grand slam in the first inning.
With the bases loaded, Almanzar rocketed a fly ball to straightaway center field.
"I thought it was gone," Natoli said. "But it hit off the top of the wall. Because it was so wet out there, the ball bounced hard off the wall then pretty much ran into left-center field. I don't remember where the left fielder was, but neither the left fielder or the center fielder could get to it.
"Mike is a fast guy, considering his size, and he was able to score easily. There was a throw, but he beat it pretty convincingly."
The Sea Dogs squandered leads of 5-0 and 7-2 before Natoli's RBI double capped a two-run ninth that put them ahead for good.