June 23, 2014
WASHINGTON, D.C. - After Tommy La Stella was drafted by Atlanta in 2011, several fans in Myrtle Beach congratulated him and said one day they would watch him play for the Braves in Major League Baseball. Those fans may have been sincere, and some may have said what they wanted the former Coastal Carolina standout to hear. But many of them didn't realize the road that was ahead for the infielder.
"The grind of the minor leagues ... if you've never gone through it, you will never know how difficult it is," said La Stella, who began his journey to the major leagues in Rome, Ga., in the low minor leagues. "It has been a long road to get here and it has been difficult."
"Early on you are not playing well and starting questioning some things. All of that was preparing me to be successful, hopefully, at the highest level," he added.
After nearly 300 games and 1,000 at bats in the minor leagues La Stella made his debut in "The Show" with Atlanta on May 28, 2014 after he was called up from Triple-A Gwinnett, the top farm club of the Braves.
La Stella had two hits in his first game in Boston against the Red Sox - the first Atlanta player in four years to get at least two hits in his first game.
"It has been an awesome experience for me and my family," said La Stella, 25, standing by his locker in the Atlanta clubhouse during a series in Washington. "It was a long road to get here. Once you are here, you enjoy it as much as you can."
He became the starting second baseman over veteran Dan Uggla, got a hit in 16 of his first 21 games and was hitting .302 after starting all four games at second in a key series in Washington against the Nationals in late June. According to baseball-reference.com he is the ninth player from Coastal Carolina to make the big leagues and the first to do so with the Braves.
"He has done fine," said Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez. "He has done exactly what we expected him to do."
Gonzalez, who led Atlanta to the NL East title in 2013, said the Braves have asked La Stella to take on an added role as a leadoff hitter - something he did not do a lot while in the minors.
That move was welcomed by at least one Atlanta regular.
"Now that we have another guy that can hit leadoff I like being five" in the lineup, right fielder Jason Heyward, who has batted leadoff in the past, said. "It is nice. That is our lineup. It sets us up to have some good (at bats) during the game and be pretty aggressive throughout the whole lineup. I like it. Everyone else likes it."
La Stella, a left-handed hitter, was born in New Jersey and began his college career at St. John's in New York. He then transferred to Coastal Carolina, where he was part of a 2010 team that hosted the Super Regional and was 55-10 overall.
"It was one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "That was one of the best atmospheres I have played in, even though we lost at home to South Carolina."
La Stella said he enjoyed playing for veteran head coach Gary Gilmore, a former minor leaguer for the Philadelphia Phillies.
"He is great. He is one who definitely knows how to rally the guys," La Stella said. "Guys love to play for him. He texted me after he got the news I was called up," La Stella said.
It has been more than three years since he was drafted, but La Stella tries to keep in touch with the current program. One player he knows is Zach Remillard, a sophomore third baseman on the 2014 team. "I try and keep up with the team the best I can," said La Stella, who worked out at Coastal Carolina in the off-season while in the minors.
A 5-foot-11 second baseman, La Stella was drafted in the eighth round by the Braves in 2011 after he was named the Big South Conference Player of the Year and a second team All-American.
He hit .328 in his first full season with Rome in 2011 with nine homers and 40 RBIs. The next season he hit .302 with five homers and 56 RBIs in just 298 at bats for the Single-A Lynchburg Hillcats of the Carolina League.
La Stella had a huge year in 2013 as he hit .343 for Double-A Mississippi after he was promoted from Lynchburg. He began this season as the No. 9 prospect in the Atlanta system, according to industry leader Baseball America.
He was batting .293 in 47 games with Gwinnett, near Atlanta, when he was called up the Braves in May. "I was fortunate to be a part of that," he said of coming up through the Atlanta system.
One veteran American League scout who watched the Braves for several games in June was impressed with La Stella. The same scout recalls following former Coastal Carolina catcher Kirt Manwaring in the 1980s - Manwaring went on to play 13 years in the Major Leagues (the most of any Coastal product) and is now is an instructor with the San Francisco Giants.
"I think overall on a short look he is a throwback, blue-collar player with a good stroke," the scout said of La Stella. "He is a hard-nosed guy who looks like he will make the routine play and give you some production with the bat."
And that is what the Braves wanted from La Stella, just the latest Coastal Carolina player to make the majors. "There is a lot of support back in Myrtle Beach, definitely," La Stella said.
Did La Stella feel he had more to prove as a player from a smaller conference?
"I think there is a little bit of that for anyone ends up at not one of the top programs," he said. "You want to show you can play at the highest level."
And so far he has.
Editor's note: David Driver covers the Washington Nationals for The Sports Xchange, a national content provider for Yahoo sports and others. He has also contributed to the website of the Big South Conference and has written for Baseball America and milb.com.