PITTSBURGH -- Signed as a 29-year-old Minor League free agent this offseason, Austin Nola is making it look as though the Mariners got a steal with the rookie season that he’s putting up.
The first baseman fell a triple shy of the cycle on Tuesday, providing all the punch the Mariners needed behind Marco Gonzales in a 6-0 win over the Pirates at PNC Park. It was the left-hander’s 16th win of the season, tied for fourth-most in the American League.
Tuesday marked back-to-back games in which he collected three or more hits. Nola also notched four in Sunday's win over the White Sox, a feat overshadowed by the historic tear on which Kyle Lewis has begun his MLB career. This season, Nola’s .490 slugging percentage trails only Tom Murphy among Seattle hitters with at least 100 at-bats. The strong consecutives showings followed a six-game stretch in which he batted 1-for-18, though he drew seven walks in that span. But his focus is less on the results and more on having “competitive at-bats.”
“Dee [Gordon] told me, ‘Things will come. Things will turn around.’ So I trust him,” Nola said. “That’s just the way. You know how baseball goes. It’s back and forth, try to stay even and the times you don’t get hits, you try to get some walks and work an at-bat.
“Whenever you go out there and work an at-bat, swing at good pitches, take the pitcher’s pitches, I think that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. If you can have four of those a night, I think it all will come together.”
Though Nola is technically an MLB rookie, Mariners manager Scott Servais pointed to how all the years that Nola has been in baseball as an instructor prepared him for a successful first season like the one he’s having.
“Making adjustments throughout the course of it is something that he’s used to doing his whole career,” Servais said. “Even though he’s a rookie, he’s a more veteran type. He’s been around. He’s been in little dips or struggles before, so no worries about him coming out of it, but it’s been really good.”
Nola's solo homer in the sixth to left was the second of three blasts that Seattle notched on Tuesday. Omar Narváez started off a string of back-to-back homers with his long ball to right to lead off the sixth before Nola’s, then Shed Long began the seventh with a drive to right that a billboard at PNC Park saved from likely going in the Allegheny River.
With an offense clicking like that, all Gonzales had to do to up his career high in wins was to keep Nola and the other bats on the field as long as he could manage.
“The more I can keep my guys in the dugout and swinging the bat, it’s better for me,” Gonzales said. “Really just trying to get our guys off their feet and get them back in to swing when they're hot. I knew that we’d kind of come through and swing the bat well tonight.”
It’s not just the bat that Nola has displayed, either. Despite playing a majority of his Minor League career as a either a shortstop or catcher, he has largely been thrust into a first-base role by the Mariners. Nola made only 24 starts at first base in his 773 games in the Minors, but he showed his increased comfort there on Tuesday with a basket catch to steal a hit from Kevin Newman. He points to the guys around him for credit.
“What a great clubhouse to have here,” Nola said. “To be able to have the leadership we have here, the guys helping you out, it’s a big deal, to make you feel comfortable.”
After all of his Minor League at-bats, just to get here, Nola is certainly making a case to be a regular next year. Is it surpassing the expectation the Mariners had when he debuted?
“Yes,” Servais said. “Everybody’s, and good for him.”