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Oliva defies odds to become Pirates Draft pick

MLB.com

PITTSBURGH -- Jared Oliva always believed he would play professional baseball, like his father, David, and his uncle, Steve. A few years ago, he realized his path would be rockier than expected.

"Boulders, actually," Oliva said. "Not just rocks."

PITTSBURGH -- Jared Oliva always believed he would play professional baseball, like his father, David, and his uncle, Steve. A few years ago, he realized his path would be rockier than expected.

"Boulders, actually," Oliva said. "Not just rocks."

On Tuesday, Oliva passed a significant checkpoint on his journey from backup high-school player to walk-on freshman to big leaguer. The Pirates selected the 20-year-old athletic outfielder from the University of Arizona in the seventh round, 208th overall, of the MLB Draft.

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"It still hasn't really hit me yet," said Oliva after watching the Draft unfold with his parents, brother, girlfriend and roommates. "To be in this position, seventh-round pick, being able to contribute, it's definitely cool."

The Draft concludes on Wednesday, with exclusive coverage of Rounds 11-40 beginning on MLB.com at noon ET.

The thought of quitting baseball crossed Oliva's mind when he couldn't start for his school's junior varsity team as a sophomore. As a senior at Valencia (Calif.) High School, Oliva figured he had 60 at-bats due to the team's talent and his coach's discretion. He went undrafted.

But he thought an invitation to a workout at Arizona might be a sign. Oliva impressed Shaun Cole, a Wildcats assistant who is now on the Padres' player-development staff. Oliva decided to attend Arizona and join the baseball team as a walk-on, redshirting his freshman year.

"Plan B was always in place," Oliva said. "But I always knew I wanted to play baseball, and baseball was what I was destined for."

Oliva looked around the locker room and saw all-state selections and recent Draft picks. "I was like, yeah, I played half my senior year," Oliva said. But what he lacked in pedigree, he made up for in intensity.

He dedicated himself to Arizona's strength program. He didn't want to "major in baseball," so he worked toward a marketing degree from Arizona's Eller College of Management. He won all of the team's strength and conditioning competitions, Arizona coach Jay Johnson said.

"What I love about him is it seems like he always shows up to the field with something to prove," Johnson said. "If I ever had a son and he was like Jared in terms of attitude, character and work ethic, I'd be extremely proud."

Defensively, Oliva is able to "shrink the field" with his range and strong arm, Johnson said. His hitting reached another level as Arizona made a run to the College World Series last summer. The Wildcats have a saying: "If you fix your eyes, you fix your swing."

So Oliva made an adjustment, turning his head and cutting down on his shoulders' movement so his dominant (right) eye could more clearly see pitchers' release points, particularly right-handers. Improved results followed, and he hit .321/.385/.498 as a redshirt junior this spring. There is still some swing-and-miss in his profile, further validating scouting comparisons between Oliva and veteran outfielder Drew Stubbs.

The Pirates were impressed by what they heard and saw of Oliva's perseverance and dedication. They still believe there are better days ahead for the former high-school backup.

"He's really come into his own," Pirates director of amateur scouting Joe DelliCarri said. "A lot of great stories about him and the quality young man he is. The baseball just surfaced a little bit later. Late bloomer. Thrilled to have the opportunity to select Jared for all those reasons."

Added Oliva: "Not too many high-school backups get the opportunity."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast.

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