January 24, 2022

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Austin Riley's Journey From Excessive College Punter to the World Sequence

Austin Riley's Journey From High School Punter to the World Series

ATLANTA — When Atlanta seized a three-games-to-one lead over Houston, the staff had loads of cling time whereas trying to win its first World Series since 1995. So it is sensible that the staff’s latest star was an all-state punter in highschool.

Within the regular-season stretch and once more in October, Austin Riley heard loads of “M.V.P.! M.V.P.!” chants at Truist Park. It’s no marvel: In simply his third main league season — and his first by which he was an on a regular basis participant for a full, 162-game yr — Riley ranked second within the Nationwide League in R.B.I. (107) and complete bases (313), third in hits (179), sixth in batting common (.303) and tenth in homers (33). He drove house the profitable run with a single within the backside of the ninth in Sport 1 of the Nationwide League Championship Sequence towards Los Angeles and was batting .294 with three R.B.I. within the first 4 video games of the World Series.

However in Southeastern Convention nation, Atlanta baseball followers starved for a title can thank the calls for of highschool soccer for pushing Riley, a slugging third baseman, towards the diamond.

Riley, 24, was a quarterback as a freshman and sophomore at DeSoto Central Excessive College in Southaven, Miss. He was additionally a budding baseball star. These two paths collided when his soccer coach advised him that he couldn’t miss seven-on-seven summer time drills after his sophomore yr.

“He advised me, ‘We’ve bought one other man right here, and he’s actually devoted,’” Riley mentioned whereas standing within the Atlanta dugout on Saturday. “It’s a kind of issues the place I wished to play quarterback however on the identical time I knew I cherished baseball and I wished to pursue that.”

When Riley determined to not play soccer, the coach invited him to remain on the staff as a kicker.

Positive, Riley mentioned, why not?

“I punted, did subject targets, which I used to be horrible at,” Riley mentioned. “I hit the upright greater than I made subject targets. It was type of humorous.”

However, wow, may he punt. And to those that knew the household, it didn’t come as a shock. His father, Mike, was a punter at Mississippi State from 1987 to 1991 and attended coaching camp with the Detroit Lions in 1992 and 1993.

“I used to be in preseason camp, and each years I used to be there I made it to the final reduce,” Mike Riley mentioned.

Austin Riley estimated that he averaged 45 or so yards a punt in highschool, and his father mentioned the excessive finish of his vary was 75 to 80 yards. Whereas Austin’s estimate could also be beneficiant (the MaxPreps web site mentioned he averaged 41.6 yards a punt), his father’s was spot on: His son’s longest punt was recorded as 77 yards.

Father and son bonded over one in every of soccer’s extra specialised expertise.

“We lived on some acreage,” Austin Riley mentioned. “We had loads of room, and there have been afternoons we’d get again there and he may nonetheless spiral and switch a ball over. That’s type of how I discovered. It began within the yard kicking it, and I bought fairly good at it.”

Becoming a member of them within the yard was a cousin, Keegan James, who’s now a aid pitcher within the Colorado Rockies’ group.

“All he did was lengthy snap,” Austin Riley mentioned. “So we’d are available, get our stuff on, do half-hour of observe after which bounce. ‘We’ve bought to go to baseball observe.’ It was cool.”

James ended up enjoying three years of baseball at Mississippi State. Riley dedicated to Mississippi State as properly, with the Bulldogs providing to offer him an opportunity to punt for the soccer staff along with enjoying baseball. He signed with Atlanta as a substitute, after being taken with the forty first choose within the 2015 draft.

There have been occasions when he puzzled if he did the correct factor. Riley struggled initially of his skilled baseball profession. He reported to Atlanta’s affiliate within the Gulf Coast League, the place, he mentioned, “I believe I went 0 for 21 with 14 strikeouts earlier than I bought my first hit.”

His father remembered it as 0 for twenty-four with 17 strikeouts. Regardless, he was solely 18 and it was each bit as tough because it sounds.

“I’m a homebody,” he mentioned. “We had been doing all these exercises and I used to be like: ‘Man, I don’t even know if that is for me. Ought to I simply go to Mississippi State and pursue skilled baseball after that?’”

He laughed as he remembered it: “I used to be getting tweeted at, ‘Austin’s going to be a pitcher by September.’ I used to be getting hammered. However as soon as that first hit got here, it was a domino impact.”

He was referred to as up by Atlanta in 2019, and initially performed left subject as a result of the membership wished his bat within the lineup. Within the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he primarily performed third base. Whereas he flashed energy as a rookie, with 18 homers in 80 video games, he additionally hit simply .226. In 2020, his homer output dropped to eight in 51 video games and he hit .239. It wasn’t till this summer time that Riley settled in as Atlanta’s cleanup hitter.

“He got here up and had such a giant splash after which type of needed to be taught his method by the massive leagues,” Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson mentioned this month. “After which I really feel like, nowadays, as quickly as we come up, all of us have a comp, proper? And we have now a comp to somebody of what our ceiling could possibly be and what they had been of their prime, after which whenever you’re not that instantly, it’s type of like, OK, properly, this particular person’s not any good. I really feel like that occurs so typically in any sport these days.”

Throughout the N.L.C.S., Dodgers Supervisor Dave Roberts mentioned Riley’s maturation was actually noticeable.

“You see the arrogance,” Roberts mentioned. “Simply on the plate, he’s dealing with velocity, spin. He can beat the shift, so he can management the barrel. He’s only a actually good hitter. And defensively he’s gotten a few grades higher, too.”

Riley mentioned he nonetheless talks along with his mom and father at the least twice a day. He married his highschool girlfriend, Anna. Their assist helped pull him by his tough early days within the Gulf Coast League, and now they sit within the stands at Truist Park listening to these “M.V.P.!” chants.

It was only a few years in the past that he was punting within the Mississippi-Alabama highschool all-star recreation. Now he’s enjoying within the World Sequence.

“This has been unreal,” Riley mentioned, mentioning the powerful, shedding seasons that Atlanta establishments reminiscent of Freddie Freeman and Supervisor Brian Snitker labored by earlier than his arrival. “To me, I really feel like I’ve been spoiled as a result of I’ve been within the league three years and I’m already within the World Sequence. Lots of people have been within the league a very long time and have by no means been right here.”

There are occasions in the course of the season when he’ll see the relievers tossing a soccer round within the outfield earlier than batting observe and ponder whether he can nonetheless flip a excessive spiral over with a swift kick. “However I resist it as a result of it takes only one kick and one thing pulls if I’m not stretched proper,” Riley mentioned.

What as soon as was an agonizing resolution to surrender one sport has turned out properly.

“I’m a individuals pleaser, and I cherished soccer,” Riley mentioned. “Friday nights, that’s what I miss most about highschool. You’ve bought the pregame, your little downtime. However I cherished baseball extra.”

He mentioned telling the soccer coach he was going to pursue baseball and asking Anna’s father for his blessing to marry his daughter had been the 2 occasions he had been most nervous.

Now?

“Oh yeah,” Riley mentioned. “I would definitely take the World Sequence within the misty rain to a Friday night time highschool soccer recreation. For positive.”

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