LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Austin Riley sat at his locker before serving as the Braves designated hitter in Wednesday afternoon's 6-4 loss to the Mets, he stared at his phone, watching video of his plate appearances during the Arizona Fall League and his recent matchup against Max Scherzer.Provided
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As Austin Riley sat at his locker before serving as the Braves designated hitter in Wednesday afternoon's 6-4 loss to the Mets, he stared at his phone, watching video of his plate appearances during the Arizona Fall League and his recent matchup against Max Scherzer.
Provided the thrill of facing the three-time Cy Young Award winner during Sunday's game against the Nationals, Riley gained a better understanding of what he had learned while spending the previous few days talking to Chipper Jones about the cerebral approach to hitting.
"It's been an honor to be around that type of player and pick his brain about, really, the mental side of hitting and the importance of trying to get inside the pitcher's head," Riley said. "I'm just really trying to progress with the mind game. Really, the next level is the game inside the game."
With just two full professional seasons under his belt, the 20-year-old Riley ranks as the No. 97 overall prospect and the No. 6 third-base prospect via MLB Pipeline. He has soaked in the benefit of being in big league camp for the first time. But the countless drills and conversations he has experienced over the past week might not be as beneficial as the plate appearances he has against Scherzer and other established pitchers.
Scherzer opened Sunday's matchup against Riley by painting a low and away fastball for a called strike. The Braves' third baseman then chased a slider that slid out of the zone before taking a fastball up and out of the zone.
"I'm thinking he's going to, then come back with a slider away, because I looked silly on it," Riley said. "Then he freezes me with a changeup inside. Most righties don't do that. That just shows you the caliber of player he is. Being able to experience that was just cool."
While serving as the designated hitter in Wednesday's game, Riley was tested against Mets veterans Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. He flied out to center against Harvey in the second inning and lined out against Wheeler during the fourth. His 0-for-2 day leaves him hitless with four strikeouts through his first eight at-bats of the Grapefruit League season.
"My stride is a little long right now," Riley said. "I'm just trying to get clear with that and get my timing good and stuff."
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This will be an important year for Riley, who will begin the upcoming season with Double-A Mississippi or Triple-A Gwinnett. He has the potential to become Atlanta's third baseman at some point during the 2019 season. But there's also a chance the Braves will pursue Josh Donaldson or jump into the Manny Machado sweepstakes during the offseason.
Riley understands the opportunity that awaits him. He came to Spring Training feeling more comfortable than he was a year ago, when he was called over from Minor League camp to serve as a roster extra in some Grapefruit League games. More importantly, a more regimented offseason conditioning program resulted in coming to camp in better baseball shape than he was last year.
Riley's hope is to avoid the early-season struggles that have plagued him both of the past two seasons. After hitting .242 with four homers and a .677 OPS in 23 April games with Class A Advanced Florida last year, he steadily improved and gained a promotion in early July. The learning curve at the next level proved to be minimal as he hit .315 with eight homers and a .900 OPS over 48 games with Mississippi.
"I'm a lot more relaxed coming into it this year, it was just a matter of getting acclimated," Riley said. "My body feels way better than it did at this point last year. I have a tendency to start slow. I'm trying to fix that and trying to put up some good numbers again this year."
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.