CINCINNATI -- Growing up less than an hour from Cincinnati in Pendleton County, Ky., reliever Nate Jones watched many Reds Opening Days on television. But Jones attended his share of the team’s games, too.
“When we had perfect attendance or the A/B honor roll growing up, one of the prizes or gifts you got was two tickets to a Reds game,” Jones said on Sunday. “I'm not saying I was the best student or made it to school every day, but when I did, you realized, ‘Hey, you got to go to a Reds game,’ so those experiences with my family were ones that I'll cherish and never forget.”
When Cincinnati opens the 2020 season vs. the Tigers on Friday, Jones will be back at Great American Ball Park again. This time, the right-hander will be seated in the bullpen. Manager David Bell informed Jones on Saturday evening that the non-roster pitcher had made the team.
As a fellow Cincinnati-area native and resident, Bell knew what that meant to Jones, who resides in Butler, Ky.
“It adds to the experience of wanting to do well and being successful individually and having a goal of trying to win and winning a championship,” Bell said. “All of that and doing it for a team that means a lot to you, no matter what.”
This was no hometown favor for Jones, who signed a Minor League contract with the Reds on Jan. 14 and was invited to big league camp. He looked good in camp before the pandemic shut down baseball, having worked three innings in three games.
Jones pitched well during Summer Camp, including one scoreless inning with one hit, one intentional walk and two strikeouts for a save in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I was still able to do my job, which is attack hitters and get guys out. Whenever you can do that, it can definitely make it a tough decision on the team on whether for me to stay or go,” said Jones, who was part of Team USA’s championship squad in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Over 284 career games in the Major Leagues with the White Sox from 2012-19, Jones is 22-13 with a 3.12 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. His 318 strikeouts in that span led all Sox relievers.
In May, Jones suffered a torn flexor mass muscle and had season-ending surgery. He appeared in only 13 games last season and posted a 3.48 ERA and career-worst 1.65 WHIP. The 34-year-old also endured numerous injuries earlier in his career.
“Going in, we knew what he had done in his career,” Bell said. “We knew he could help us, not only being on the staff but potentially being a guy we rely on and has the experience of pitching late in games in big situations and all of that. The big thing going in for us -- is Nate healthy? And he’s shown that.”
Tucker Barnhart caught Jones for the first time in a game on Saturday and called mostly sliders. Jones offers a unique arm angle with his delivery that can be deceptive for hitters.
“His arm action is hard to describe unless you see it,” Barnhart said. “It’s not like an Iron Mike pitching machine. He’s got a really funky arm action that’s unique to him. It’s fun to catch. He’s an awesome guy, really down to Earth and humble. I’m looking forward to catching him more.”
When he was told he made the club, Jones was able to share the joy with his family locally -- including his father, Bill, who helped him build a mound so he could keep pitching during the shutdown.
Now that Jones knows he can participate in a Cincinnati Opening Day, he realizes much of the usual hype and tradition will be absent. Because of COVID-19, no fans will be inside Great American Ball Park, and no block party or parade will occur outside.
“Obviously, fans being there and family being there make it different, but bringing it back to the simplest form of making the Opening Day roster, I'm not going to let it take away from that,” Jones said. “It is a bummer that we're not going to have any fans and my family can't be there, but it's still awesome and it's still exciting and I'm definitely honored by that.”