Quiet Alu making loud impact in camp with underdog mentality

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Not much has been thought of Jake Alu from an outsider’s point of view throughout his baseball career.

He was not a top prospect coming out of Boston College. He was not a top prospect on the Nationals farm after they selected him in the 24th round of the 2019 draft. And people outside of the organization didn’t take much notice of his steady climb through four levels of the system over the last three minor league seasons.

And quite frankly, that’s just the way he likes it.

“I definitely see myself as a little underdog,” Alu said. “But honestly, I just go out there and I've never stepped on a field and felt, 'Wow, I can't compete here at all.' I've always been there trying to prove myself. When I play with better people, it makes me play better.”

Whether or not you’ve noticed him, the 25-year-old has earned his spot in his first major league spring training.

“I love it. It's awesome,” he said. “Working with all the coaches and kind of just being able to work on things that I know I need to get ready for the season. It's very accessible and I'm having a great time.”

Alu turned heads last year by slashing .323/.372/.553 with a .925 OPS, 15 doubles, one triple, 11 home runs and 45 RBIs in 59 games with Triple-A Rochester after a promotion from Double-A Harrisburg in July. That production in his first taste of the highest minor league level was enough for the Nationals to add him to the 40-man roster in November to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.

Those numbers surely caught somebody’s eye from another team.

But a quick examination into Alu’s career shows very clearly that he can hit and he always has.

He was a career .301 hitter over four seasons at Boston College. He hit .307 in two seasons of collegiate summer league ball. He hit .303 at High-A Wilmington in 2021. And he hit .299 between Harrisburg and Rochester last year.

All told over his last six seasons of baseball at any level, he’s hit .293 over almost 1,700 at-bats in 477 games.

“I love his bat. I mean, he can hit,” manager Davey Martinez said of Alu. “I'm watching Jake swing the bat. He puts (together) good at-bats, puts the ball in play, hits the ball hard, so that's awesome.”

The skipper has also previously mentioned how much he enjoys Alu’s relaxed demeanor as a left-hander at the plate, which helps keep his approach simple.

“I try to keep it super simple because I think hitting is just so hard in general,” Alu said. “So if you're starting to think about too many things or you're trying to work on too much stuff, then you're not going to be very successful, in my opinion. For me, like Davey said, I'm super relaxed. I try to be as simple as possible, as quiet as possible and just have the same approach every time up the middle.”

That same approach has led to some early success in five spring training games so far, as he’s gone 3-for-9 with a double and an RBI. You’ll notice, however, that it doesn’t result in big power numbers, which is perfectly fine for the 5-foot-10, 186-pound Alu, who has posted a .433 slugging percentage while hitting just 37 home runs over the same six seasons of baseball.

“That's my job. I'm not trying to be someone that I'm not,” he said. “I'm not gonna go out there and hit 50 home runs a year. We played Aaron Judge (Wednesday). I don't look like him at the plate. I know my job, I know my role. Get on base, be a gritty guy and make the plays in the field.”

That gritty mentality – and of course on-field success – has led to some recent recognition for Alu. He was named the Nationals’ 27th best prospect in MLB Pipeline’s latest rankings, his first time cracking a top 30 list. And at the end of last year he was chosen to receive the Nationals Way Award as part of the organization’s 2022 minor league awards.

The latter recognition, given to the player “who best demonstrates the professionalism, leadership, loyalty, passion, selflessness, durability, determination and work ethic required to play the game the ‘Washington Nationals Way,’” was a high honor for him to receive.

“It's great,” Alu said. “And I think one of the biggest things that I've learned growing up playing baseball is baseball is a team sport. … If you got nine guys doing everything really gritty and focused each pitch, then you're gonna have a really good ballclub and you're gonna win a lot of games. So if I can help people do that, then shoot, that's what I'm going to do.”

Alu hopes to do that with some of his minor league teammates at the major league level. The Nationals clubhouse is younger than it’s ever been before. Even in his first big league camp, Alu can look around and see a lot of familiar faces from the farm system, including top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli, with whom Alu was chatting for a while on Thursday.

“I've talked about it with Cade a lot,” Alu said. “We got a good group coming up and I think we have something really exciting brewing here. The culture is becoming like you can start feeling we're getting us really tight together, and it's kind of exciting.”

Unlike Cavalli, however, Alu is no sure thing to make the Opening Day roster. He’s probably a longshot, circumstances he’s obviously familiar with.

He’s battling incumbent Ildemaro Vargas and former top prospect Jeter Downs for the backup infielder spot. But Alu, who has played second and third base this spring, will be getting some reps in the corner outfield spots soon, which he is more than willing to do if it gets him on the field.

“I see myself as whatever will get you in the lineup, honestly,” he said. “Second, third, left field, any of the outfield spots. I'll do anything.”

For now, he’s focused on doing what he does best: hitting, playing defense (he led all of the minor leagues, infielders and outfielders, with 17 Defensive Runs Saved at third base last year) and doing whatever he can to help his team win while flying under the radar.

“Just like we said, being quiet at the plate, being able to hit balls hard, play good defense, make the plays in the field. Kind of do the little things right,” Alu said. “Just go out and do my thing. I'm not going to try to be anybody different than I actually am and hopefully that helps the team win some games.”

If he does that, people are going to start to notice him more.

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