Former CCU star La Stella called up by Atlanta Braves

ryoung@thesunnews.comMay 28, 2014 

Braves Red Sox Baseball

Boston Red Sox's Grady Sizemore is out at second as Atlanta Braves second baseman Tommy LaStella, left, turns a double play in the seventh inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Wednesday, May 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

ELISE AMENDOLA — AP

One of the past stars of Coastal Carolina’s baseball program could now be the future at second base for the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves called up Tommy La Stella from Triple-A Gwinnett to join the team Wednesday in Boston for their game with the Red Sox and immediately thrust the former Chanticleer standout into the starting lineup. He didn’t disappoint, going 2-for-3 with two singles, assisting on an out at the plate and turning two double plays as of the 7th inning.

The 2011 Big South Player of the Year was penciled into the eighth spot in the batting order for his Major League debut, and according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said La Stella will get the opportunity to play on a regular basis.

A self-made success story, from transferring to Coastal Carolina with no guarantee of playing time to turning himself into a highly-regarded pro prospect, La Stella’s narrative has all been leading to this point – his opportunity to prove he can play at the sport’s highest level.

“Unbelievable,” La Stella was quoted as saying Wednesday afternoon by the Journal-Constitution after arriving at Boston’s Fenway Park. “Growing up in New Jersey I certainly watched a lot of Yankee-Red Sox games. I have tremendous respect for this organization, and obviously such a historical ballpark like this – I couldn’t think of a better place to make my debut.”

Back in the Myrtle Beach area, word spread quickly via social media and there were surely a few extra televisions tuned in locally to the telecast of the game.

“I’ll be locked in,” Chants coach Gary Gilmore said earlier in the day. “No shot of me missing that game.”

La Stella becomes the eighth former Coastal Carolina player to reach the big leagues and the first since Dave Sappelt played in 31 games for the Chicago Cubs last season.

The Braves, according to the Journal-Constitution, have received the worst production from the second base position of any team in the big leagues this season with a collective .165 batting average, majors-worst .250 slugging percentage and .253 on-base percentage entering Wednesday.

They opened the season with expensive veteran Dan Uggla starting at second, but he has hit just .177 with two homers and 10 RBIs in 34 games. Since relegating Uggla to a bench role, the Braves had been using Tyler Pastornicky (.200, 0 homers, 2 RBIs) and Ramiro Pena (.164-2-6) at second. They optioned Pastornicky to Triple-A Gwinnett to make room for the roster move Wednesday.

La Stella was batting .293 with a .384 on-base percentage in 47 games for Gwinnett and has a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 102-to-136 over 1,196 plate appearance in the minor leagues.

“He’s got great plate discipline, which you can see from his numbers, the base on balls to strikeouts,” Gonzalez told the Journal-Constitution. “It’s good to be able to have that in your lineup, just a little change. Hopefully he gives us a little something. This guy’s got a good eye, he walks, he hits some balls to the gap and if you make a mistake he’ll run you out of the ballpark.

“And it’s good that he came to spring training with us, been around the guys a little bit, feels comfortable.”

Speaking by phone, Gilmore reminisced about his former star second baseman. La Stella had transferred to Coastal Carolina after playing his freshman season at St. John’s, and he came with little promises beyond a roster spot. He wasn’t even on scholarship as a sophomore while batting .378 with 14 home runs, 66 RBIs and 63 runs scored to help the Chants to the 2010 NCAA super regionals.

As a junior, he led the Chants in most offensive categories with a .398 batting average, 14 homers, 15 doubles, four triples, 70 RBIs and 59 runs scored before being drafted in the eighth round in 2011 by the Braves.

And he’s kept climbing ever since.

“That young man deserves every bit of credit for getting himself in this opportunity,” Gilmore said. “He’s definitely one of the best baseball players I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching and one of the most knowledgeable students of the game. He’s made himself into a fantastic hitter. He had great ability, but just the way he goes about what he does – his attention to detail, wanting to learn and understand how pitchers pitch guys and why they do this or that.

“He picked [Coastal Carolina pitching coach Drew Thomas’] brain all the time in his redshirt year – ‘Why did you do that? Why did we do this?’ He’s just a great student of the game.”

Gilmore said he still talks to his current players about La Stella’s pitch recognition and ability to see the spin of the ball out of the pitcher’s hand – a skill he says was unmatched by anyone else he has coached.

And now he’ll try to put those tools to work in the big leagues.

Previous Coastal Carolina baseball players to reach the majors are Mickey Brantley (Seattle 1986-89), Kirt Manwaring (San Francisco 1987-96, Houston 1996, Colorado 1997-99), Tom Romano (Montreal 1987), Keith Glauber (Cincinnati 1998, 2000), Luis Lopez (Toronto 2001, Montreal 2004), Sappelt (Cincinnati 2011, Chicago Cubs 2012-13) and Mike Costanzo (Cincinnati 2012).

After signing with the Braves in that summer of 2011, La Stella quickly worked his way through the team’s minor league system with consistent production.

He hit .328 with nine homers and 40 RBIs in 63 games for Single-A Rome that first summer, batted .299 with six homers and 59 RBIs in 2012 while splitting time between rookie league and Class-A Advanced Lynchburg and then hit .356 with five homers and 45 RBIs last year between Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi.

La Stella made a strong push for a Major League roster spot in spring training this year before being sent to open the season at Gwinnett.

His opportunity has arrived, though, and it’s now up to him what he does with it.

“Opportunities are made,” Gilmore said. “Tommy has hit significantly at every stop. That’s the name of the game. If you’re hitting and can defend a little bit, you’ll have a chance to get there one day, and he’s just been a consistently fantastic hitter at every level in the minor leagues. … It doesn’t surprise me.”

Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.

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