Like any player who has just signed his first professional contract, Tyler Austin
was as jittery as a new-born colt upon reporting to the Gulf Coast League in 2010. Drafted in the 13th round by the New York Yankees, Austin was ready to begin working his way to the top before he stumbled out of the gate.
"Right after I signed, in my fourth at-bat, I got hit on the hand and fractured a bone," Austin said. "That set me out for the rest of the season. I also didn't get to play in the Dominican and instructional league, which I was scheduled to attend. That was really tough. I had just signed and I was ready to get into it when all of the sudden everything came to a stop."
The injury to his left wrist and hand prevented Austin from swinging a bat until January. He finally returned to the field in the GCL last June and responded by hitting .390 in 20 games prior to being promoted to the New York-Penn League. He continued to pound pitchers with a vengeance, finishing the slate in the Short-Season Class A loop with a .323 norm in 27 outings.
"It was great to get back on the field and play for teams that both won championships in their leagues," Austin said. "It was awesome to come out and have the season I had last year, especially after the setback I had the year before."
Austin's 2011 performance has proven to be a harbinger for this season. After Wednesday's doubleheader in which he went 5-for-5 in the opener, the Charleston outfielder paced the South Atlantic League in several offensive categories, including home runs (13), slugging percentage (.661), extra-base hits (34) and total bases (127). He also was second in the circuit with 51 runs scored, all while posting a .323 batting average with 16 doubles, five triples and 44 RBIs and succeeding on 13 of his first 14 stolen-base attempts.
"I feel really good about the way things are going," Austin said. "I've been doing the right things during BP and doing my flips and other drills in the cages. I'm really happy with the way things have started off so far."
His offensive output is even more impressive when his defensive change of scenery is taken into account. The Conyers, Ga., product was a catcher in high school and was tabbed an Aflac All-American in the summer following his junior year. He made the move to third base last year, but some inconsistencies led many observers to believe his future might be at first. Instead, Austin has spent the first two months of the current campaign in right field, displaying good arm strength and above-average athleticism.
"I feel it's going really well," said the 20-year-old. "It's taking some time to make the adjustments out there, especially reading the flight of the balls. Third base was tough, although I started to feel more comfortable there toward the end of last season. But I would say at this point, I feel more comfortable in right field than I did last year at third."
His strong start notwithstanding, Austin realizes improvements need to be made in all phases of his game. In addition to learning the nuances of playing an outfield corner, Austin is working on making more consistent contact. He had 51 strikeouts in his first 184 at-bats, and a reduction in that total would increase his on-base percentage, which is a decent .378. Even so, RiverDogs hitting coach Greg Colbrunn has been impressed with Austin's willingness to work the count and use the entire field, traits that should lead to more success as his experience continues to mount.
"I try to keep my focus on doing my job each and every day," Austin said. "In the end, the results will take care of themselves if I do my job. I can't worry about where I'll be or what's going to happen or predict the future. I just want to go out and the play the game the right way and let my performance determine where I go next."
Hit machines: Four players entered Wednesday's games with double-digit hit streaks. Lexington's Chris Epps and Asheville's Will Swanner had 13-game strings, while Greenville's Boss Moanaroa had hit safely in 12 straight outings and Hickory's Luis Sardinas in 11. The league's longest streak thus far in 2012 is the 16-game performance by West Virginia's Alen Hanson.
Dandy defense: The Augusta GreenJackets broke a South Atlantic League record Tuesday night by posting their eighth consecutive game without committing an error. The previous streak of seven was established by the Charleston Wheelers in 1994. Augusta starter Clayton Blackburn took a no-hitter into the seventh inning of the game before giving up a two-out double. Blackburn received a no-decision while striking out nine and walking one.
Roberts returns to roots: Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts was back at Arthur W. Purdue Stadium on Tuesday for the first time in 13 years to start a two-game rehab assignment. Roberts, who is working his way back from a concussion, told The Daily Times that his return to where he began his professional career was not without some emotion. "This was the first place I ever got paid to play baseball and I think any time you're able to go back to those roots, it's fun," Roberts told the newspaper. "My wife has never been here and experienced Delmarva, so she was excited to come see where my beginnings took place. I have a lot of fond memories, knew a lot of great people here, and it will certainly always hold a place in my heart."