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Extended: Former Norse pitcher excels in major league

Kevin Ward, Contributing writer

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UPDATED at 12:25 p.m. Dec. 7: Article was updated to reflect an extended version of the story, different from the print version which ran Dec. 6.

Former NKU baseball player Nate Jones recently finished his rookie season with the Chicago White Sox. Jones ended the year with an 8-0 record, 65 strikeouts, and a 2.39 ERA in 71.2 innings of work.

Jones made 65 appearances for the Sox which made him the second most used relief pitcher for the team behind veteran Matt Thornton’s 74. The Sox went 85-77 this season, missing the playoffs and finishing second in the American League Central Division, behind the future American League champion Detroit Tigers.

Jones, who made the 25-man roster after spring training, made his first major league debut against the Texas Rangers on April 8th, striking out MLB All-Star Josh Hamilton on an 82 mph changeup. It was a moment he would never forget.

“In Texas they do things big and there was like 50,000 people there,” Jones said. “I’m running out there and I’m like ‘here it is.’ I gotta show my stuff here. I ended up walking those first two guys and I’m just thinking to myself  ‘I know I can throw strikes, I know I can do this.’ The next guy up I got a double play and got two outs and the next guy up was Josh Hamilton. It was a surreal feeling facing a guy you grew up watching and loving. When I struck him out, I tried to show no emotion, but I think I ended up cracking a smile as I was walking off the field.”

Jones would soon become a go-to guy in the Sox bullpen as he made 24 appearances in the months of May and June. He struggled towards the end of June as he made eight appearances in ten days. Jones looked to veterans Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain for advice on how to take on the mental aspect of the 162-game season.

“That’s the great thing about having veterans in the bullpen,” Jones said. “They helped us get ready for this. They told us from the beginning that it’s a grind. It’s 162 games and you have the possibility of getting in every one of them no matter if you pitched the night before or not. It’s all about winning here.”

Jones came to NKU in 2005 from Pendleton County High School. The current head coach of the Norse, Todd Asalon, recruited him. Asalon saw a tremendous talent in Jones and offered him a scholarship to be apart of the team. Asalon saw a lot of potential in Jones, who threw over 90 mph in high school, and he aimed to fix some of his issues to turn him into a future professional.

He spent a few seasons in the minors before getting called up to the White Sox class-AA affiliate Birmingham Barons in 2011. His 67 strikeouts in 42 games earned him a spot on the Sox roster for the 2012 season.

“When I first saw him, I said to myself, that was a professional arm,” Asalon said. “Anybody could see how good he was going to be. He threw ninety plus miles per hour in high school, he was really wild, but there was no taking back how good his arm was.”

Pitching coach Dizzy Peyton worked with Jones throughout his NKU career and even through the process of him getting drafted. Jones was selected in the 5th round of the 2007 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox, which makes him the highest drafted player in NKU history. Peyton always knew Jones had a shot to make it big.

“A lot of Nate’s success has just come from Nate,” Peyton said. “He has a lot of family support, he has good support here at NKU and he just has a desire to want to do well. I think deep down inside, Nate has a motor that he wants to do well for all the people back here as well. To me, he is the epitome of a hometown hero type of guy. All the stuff he has been doing with the opportunity he has been given just says volumes about Nate’s character. He hasn’t changed from the time he has been drafted to now.”

In the offseason, Jones comes back to NKU to train with the team and help out with the coaches however he can. He likes to keep in touch with the program and he uses NKU as a place for him to keep in shape during the winter offseason.

“In the preseason in December and January he comes out and works with our guys,” Asalon said. “I think he enjoys coming back and working with our guys and pitching to our catchers. I know that they love catching him because to say you’re catching somebody who can throw 100 mph is pretty cool. He comes to our alumni events and he comes to work out with us. He comes up a few times a week to toss with Dizzy. I don’t think he comes to throw, I think he just comes back to be back and to be around everybody.”

Jones has been very involved with the baseball program and says he does it because of his love for the opportunity NKU gave him.

“This [NKU] was another step along the way that got me to my dream,” Jones said. “I’m not going to forget about it. I’m not just going to shrug it off or anything. I know what these people did. I know what Dizzy and Todd did, everyone in the athletic department did here at NKU, and I want to come back and try to repay and rethink everybody. Any little bit I can do to help the team, Dizzy, or Todd, I’m going to try to do it and do it to the best of my ability. I want them to know I appreciate it.”

Jones will be around campus over the next few months to talk to everyone and toss with his former pitching coach and good friend, Peyton.

“He is just a laid back kind of country boy,” Peyton said. “He drinks beer and he does everything just like we do except he’s just got a really good arm. It’s just so cool to me to see someone that worked that hard and put in so much effort for it to come out the way it did for him.”

With the beginning of spring training still months away, Jones will continue to workout with NKU’s baseball team until his duty calls with the Sox. He is looking forward to building off of his experiences from his rookie season and aims to improve his own play, and that of his team.

“This coming spring training I’m going to come in with the same attitude I had in 2012,” Jones said. “I’m going to prove that I can throw strikes and that I can get guys out. If you lose that attitude and already thing you belong without trying, that’s when you start to get in trouble and think you are better than the game. That’s when the game is going to come back and get you. I didn’t do it alone in those eight wins. I made mistakes too. I gave up runs and our hitting picked me up. I know it’s on my record, but those are team wins.”

Jones is one of two NKU baseball alums to currently be playing in the majors. Pitcher Josh Lueke was drafted in the 16th round in 2007 by the Texas Rangers, and he currently plays for the Tampa Bay Rays class-AAA affiliate Durham Bulls. Lueke was on the Rays’ 40-man roster in 2012 and is expected to be on the 25-man roster for the 2013 season.

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Extended: Former Norse pitcher excels in major league