Minor league baseball player Nick Natoli, of Ellicott City, was in Charleston, S.C., in late May when he was informed that he was being promoted in the Boston Red Sox farm system.
Playing for the Greenville (S.C.) Drive in the low Class A South Atlantic League, Natoli's logical next step would have been to the high Class A Salem (Va.) Red Sox of the Carolina League.
But Natoli, 24, a former Mount St. Joseph and Towson University standout, got a big surprise when he was told that he was being sent directly to the Class AA Portland (Me.) Sea Dogs of the Eastern League. Just two rungs from Boston, Portland was a pretty heady destination for a player who was not drafted after his senior year of college and signed with the Red Sox as an undrafted free agent on June 16, 2011.
"It was the second day of the series, and I got a call in my hotel room," said the infielder. "It was really exciting. Not too many people get to play Double A. This is just my second year (of pro ball). They have not really told me my role or why they did it.
"I am an organizational guy and a utility guy. That is my best way to climb the ladder in the organization. They have not told me how long I will be here," added Natoli, standing outside the Portland clubhouse during a recent series in Bowie.
"I am kind of riding it out."
The Columbia native was called up to the Sea Dogs to fill in at third for the injured Kolbrin Vitek, who began this year as the No. 19 prospect in the Boston system, according to Baseball America.
"We know he is versatile. He has filled in nicely," Portland manager Kevin Boles said of Natoli. "He has a professional work ethic."
The timing was nice, as about two weeks after the promotion, Natoli was able to play in front of about 50 members of his family and friends at Prince George's County Stadium in Bowie against the Baysox. His sister, Jules, is a recent Howard High graduate who hopes to win a spot as a walk-on with the Towson University softball team next season.
He started at third base for Portland on June 13 at Bowie and was hitless in two at bats with a walk, but got a big round of applause from his fans during each at bat and also when he made a nice play on a hot shot down the third-base line in the second inning. Last year, Natoli played at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen while with the Lowell (Mass.) Spinners.
A former student at Ilchester Elementary and Bonnie Branch Middle School, Natoli played shortstop all four years at Towson and was twice the Defensive Player of the Year in the Colonial Athletic Association.
"If you know how to play shortstop, you can play other positions," he said. "It is just positioning and being in the right spot."
Natoli feels fortunate just to be playing pro ball. He tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while at Towson and was not drafted after his junior or senior seasons, although he was an all-CAA player.
He graduated from Towson with a degree in finance in 2011. "I was going to do some interviews to be a financial advisor," said Natoli, who had an internship with Morgan Stanley while in college. "It was definitely nice to get a call (from Boston) and stay out of an office job for a little longer."
The right-hander hit .195 with a home run in 41 at bats with Greenville, and then hit .148 with two doubles and a RBI in his first 54 at bats with Portland.
While Natoli was the CAA Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and 2011, he held his own on offense with Portland despite a low batting average. He reached base in 11 of 12 games in one stretch through June 13.
"He is a guy that manages the strike zone," said Dave Joppie, the hitting coach for Portland. "He will give you a good at bat. He can handle the bat well; he will battle and grind. He has stayed aggressive. He has not backed down" at the higher level.
Portland outfielder Bryce Brentz, one of the top hitters in the Eastern League and a top prospect in the Boston system, jokes that Natoli has drawn more walks than him in far less at bats. And he is almost right: Natoli had nine walks in his first 12 games with the Sea Dogs while Brentz walked 16 times in his first 218 at bats and 58 games this year.
Natoli, in his first pro season in 2011, hit .271 in a combined 19 games in the Gulf Coast League and with the Lowell Spinners of the New York-Penn League.
"His hitting is coming around. He has been a great addition since he came down. He is growing as a hitter," Brentz said.
But it is defense that helped Natoli land at the Class AA level.
"He is pretty solid on defense," said Brentz. "He makes the right decisions every time. There have been a lot of tough plays, and he makes the right call.
"I like him at third base."