On the Grind

Just over a year ago, Nathan Baker was in the shower of his home when the Pittsburgh Pirates made him their fifth-round selection in the 2009 Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft.

It was a surreal experience.

Baker, whose Ole Miss career was draped in inconsistency, had never expected to go so high. He felt fortunate to finally reach the professional level, considering an up-and-down junior season where he split time as both a starter and a reliever. He started seven games for Ole Miss in his 20 overall appearances.

His phone, on vibrate at the time of the announcement, could barely contain the text messages and calls when the selection was made. There was no shortage of well-wishers, from his family to his teammates, including good friend Phillip Irwin, who would soon join him in the organization as the Pirates' selection in the 21st round.

"He's a great guy, and he knows baseball better than any other player I've probably ever met," Baker said of Irwin. "It's been nice having him out there."

However, it didn't take long for the post-draft ecstasy to wear off. He and Irwin were quickly sent to West Virginia to join the Power, a low-A club. It's where he learned the grind and humble surroundings of minor league baseball.

"It's a lot different than college," he said.

Nathan Baker

Ole Miss is one of the conference's biggest draws in terms of attendance. Compared to O-U Stadium which seats upwards of 11,000, Appalachian Power Park, located in downtown Charleston, welcomes 3,000 fans on average per game.

Even more, Baker was playing baseball nearly every day with few off-days. Minor league schedules nearly double those of Southeastern Conference schedules.

"You're going from around 75 games to 140 games and you're playing every day," he said. "It's a grind."

So the long haul from Oxford to Charleston took some getting used to. The South Atlantic League is far removed from the comfortable surroundings of the SEC, where Baker notched a 3.63 ERA in his final season at Ole Miss.

Baker said "it was nice" to have Irwin alongside. The pair endured those everyday trials, the grind, together. They shared ideas and provided encouragement.

"It takes a lot of worry off your mind," Baker said. "It's been great to have a friend who's going through the same process you're going through."

Baker has since been promoted to high-A Bradenton (Fla.). Irwin, meanwhile, remains with the Power.

Phillip Irwin

However, Baker believes Irwin, who started every weekend for the Rebels in 2009, isn't far behind. He's 5-1 with a 2.44 ERA in 16 games.

"He's been tremendous all year," Baker said of Irwin. "One of the things he's been able to use to his advantage is his mentality on the mound. He's got a bulldog mentality and gets ahead on each hitter. And he's got a great breaking ball. He's been using that to get ahead of each hitter."

Baker's Marauders are a member of the Florida State League. He's strictly a rotation member these days, and has accumulated one win and one loss in three games, with a 2.86 ERA between low and high A.

He isn't sure when he'll get his next call, although he would "like to move up each year." He's added a changeup to his left-handed pitching arsenal to go along with his usual four-seam fastball and curveball.

"It's helped me out in a majority of my outings this year," he said. "I haven't been using it as much as I was in low-A, but it's one of my better pitches now, I would say."

All the while, he keeps in constant contact with Irwin. He's also reached out to another good friend, Drew Pomeranz, who was selected fifth overall by the Cleveland Indians a year later. With the selection, Pomeranz became the highest drafted player in the history of Ole Miss baseball.

"He's one of the best pitchers I've seen in college baseball," Baker said. "He'll go through the minors really fast, because he's got the power-lefty arm. He's got the size and big-league stuff. He'll make it to the big leagues really fast."

The Marauders are currently playing in Lakeland, Fla., one of Baker's many minor-league stops as he ventures towards the majors. But no matter where he finds himself in the coming years, his only goal is to maintain his focused mentality.

His game is developing like he always hoped it would.

"I do feel a lot different from where I was in college," he said. "In college, I was out in the pen, and I've started every game this year. That's a different transition. But I've tried to keep the same mentality, which is to just try and win the game the best that I could."

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