Having reached the College World Series with NC State in 2013 and then failing to make the postseason the following year, Austin saw firsthand how fragile the game of baseball can be. After being selected in the fourth round of the 2014 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox, he now grinds it out daily as a professional player with the Kannapolis Intimidators of the South Atlantic League.
His pro career started after three seasons with the Wolfpack despite being selected No. 54 overall as a supplemental first round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft by the San Diego Padres following high school in Charlotte. For Austin, attending NC State is a decision he does not regret making.
“Those three years I spent there are probably the three best years of my life,” Austin said. “The relationships I developed with Elliott Avent, Coach Hart, Brian Ward and Coach Holliday, they are life-long connections. I keep in touch with them all of the time. Some of my best friends are at NC State.”
With the Intimidators, Austin is batting .258 with one homer and 11 RBIs in 30 games (entering play on May 27th). He spent two seasons in Cape Cod during his collegiate career but that still did not quite prepare him for the day-to-day rigors that comes with using wooden bats. With over 70 games at Low-A ball under his belt over the past two seasons, the switch-hitting catcher is starting to get a feel for it.
“That transition is actually pretty tough,” Austin recalled. “Those two summers at the Cape definitely helped me with that transition but when I first got here, it was coming from a full season of the new BBCOR aluminum bats (during the 2014 season at NC State) to the first couple weeks here--that was a bit of a transition. It didn’t feel right. It was just weird but eventually you get used to it.”
Austin also somewhat struggled initially behind the plate. After only throwing out 17-of-67 baserunners who attempted to steal in 2014, he has nailed 12 out of 30 this season--including two in the same inning on Memorial Day against Lexington--for an almost 15 percent increase.
According to Kannapolis manager Tommy Thompson, what is perhaps most important is Austin’s increased assertiveness in all phases. Thompson wants his pupil to be a leader and thinks that it is a job that never stops.
“I think from Day One until now he is receiving the ball much better,” Thompson said. “He is very coachable. His throwing some nights is better than others--when he has his proper mechanics that he continues to work on. He has got an average Major League arm and he can throw out runners. When he tries to be too quick and too fast, it takes away a little bit of his accuracy and his arm strength. I can say that about any catcher that plays at any level.”
“He is working on things,” Thompson added. “I have tried to put him in more of a leadership role behind the plate, taking charge and it has been really good. The positive reinforcements that are coming back are from making him do it himself instead of him looking for me to make signs. He has made progress and if he continues to make progress, we will see what happens. There is progress being made and I am happy with that.”
NC State was successful for the most part in Austin’s three years and even when the Wolfpack stumbled in his junior season it was still a squad with talented players and dynamic characters. In that situation, leadership was seldom required. As such, Thompson does not feel it is a natural trait for the Charlotte-native.
“It is not and I am staying on him about that--big time--because I was a catcher and I was an instructor here for 12 years,” Thompson said. “I think that is vital for leadership of the team, the pitching staff, in the dugout, in the locker room and on the bus. I think he was probably so good in college that he didn’t have to do it or there might have been other guys that did it. I think that is something that comes from within. It is not like being a cheerleader, it is like being a guy in charge of the game, the situation and taking responsibility for the game actions. He is doing better at that.”
“To be honest, some of the things he was not doing are things he was not aware of. It is new information. It is different from college to pro, but it is important. It is important that he takes the initiative every pitch--even if he is 0-for-4 or we are winning 10-0--and gets after it. It is 27 outs. It is a continuous responsibility.”
Even in the South Atlantic League, the level of play exceeds that of the ACC--which Austin feels has helped prepare him for professional ball. One of his current teammates is Christian Stringer, who played for the Rice team that lost to NC State in the 2013 Super Regionals.
“The best high school guys and the best college guys are at this level,” Austin said. “There is a bit of a jump from college. You don’t really see a bad arm, even out of the bullpen. It is basically like facing a Friday night guy every night. It has been a transition but it is something you get used to.”
Thompson managed at Winston-Salem last season, one of three clubs in the Chicago organization that are in the western part of North Carolina--including Austin’s hometown club, the Charlotte Knights. The 2015 campaign is his first chance coaching the fourth-round pick and he thinks the White Sox have something that could be special.
“I have seen him the first month and a half we have had him here,” Thompson said. “He definitely has some potential. You don’t see too many switch-hitting catchers, which is definitely some value for him. He looks like a line drive-type hitter who is learning to hit with some power--that usually comes a little later in your career.”
Despite being immersed in his professional career, Austin still keeps an eye on NC State. The Wolfpack’s recent surge to the ACC Baseball Championship Game cemented a return to the NCAA Tournament after a year’s sabbatical. He is thrilled the Pack is back to the level he feels it belongs and does not rule out more success this season.
“It is pretty cool,” Austin said of NC State’s recent play. “I have been texting Preston Palmeiro--I heard about the news against Miami with the ‘Little League inside-the-park home run.’ I was pumped. It is exciting, especially after our year last year where we didn’t make the postseason. Those guys are good. They are grinders, scrapping it out. It is good to see them back in a Regional. I think any team can do damage in the postseason, it is just a matter of who is hot.”
The greatest stage in college baseball is in Omaha. With NC State, Austin has been there and done that. Now his objective is to be a Major Leaguer. With its emphasis on instruction and three of the top four teams in its Minor League system close enough to home that his family and friends can provide support, Chicago has proved to be a wonderful landing spot.
“Overall the White Sox are a great organization,” Austin said. “We have got great guys. It has been a privilege. It is a great organization. I am very happy with it and it is nice being close to home. The three teams being in North Carolina definitely helps out a lot.[Family and friends] try to get up here as much as they can.
If the day comes when he dons the White Sox uniform and is behind the plate at U.S. Cellular Field, it will be a culmination of all the hard work over the years--with Wolfpack Nation having seen it firsthand at Doak Field from 2012-14.
“It would be awesome,” Austin said of reaching the Majors. “It is something you strive for and you work for. It’s your lifelong dream. To be able to do that is everything.”