Shortstop Cluff has experience coming back from time away from the game

We spoke about Nationals prospect Jackson Cluff last month with Troy Gingrich. The Nats hitting coordinator was impressed with the shortstop's ability at the plate, showcasing outstanding bat speed and approach. Cluff's college coach, BYU's Mike Littlewood, knows Cluff's swing very well, and likes the youngster's "quick twitch" ability.

"He's got tremendous bat speed," Littlewood said. "He's got good plate discipline. He knows what's a strike and what's a ball. For the most part, he does a good job of keeping it simple, just swinging at strikes and taking balls. The one thing that we try to work on with his swing is he extends his hands early instead of kind of keeping them close to his body and it would get him out and around the ball a little bit. I know he's still trying to make those adjustments. When I saw him last, his swing looked really, really good."

Littlewood has coached baseball since 1993, mostly with Dixie State and now at BYU. The 2019 West Coast Conference Coach of the Year was a third baseman/shortstop in his playing days and believes Cluff has a lot of the tools and intangibles it will take to play well at the pro level.

"I wouldn't compare him to Barry Bonds, but those type of guys can wait, wait, wait until the ball is right on them to decide what they are going to do, where some guys have to cheat," Littlewood said. "He's a guy that can see the ball a long time and then hit it where it's pitched. He doesn't have to cheat because he's quick enough. But he is clearly a fast twitch player."

Cluff-Hagerstown-Throwing-Sidebar.jpgLittlewood said Cluff comes to the table with tremendous makeup, working hard to return to form at BYU after he spent time away from the game on his church mission in Atlanta. The Nats' 2019 sixth-round selection played college ball for the Cougars in 2016, then as part of his Mormon mission spent two years away from the game in Georgia.

The shortstop then returned to play his senior season of college baseball in Provo, Utah. In a breakout 2019 season, Cluff slashed .327/.458/.518 with 20 doubles, three triples, four homers, 12 stolen bases and 56 RBIs, garnering the attention of pro scouts, especially the Nats.

Cluff is ranked as the No. 20 Nats prospect in the latest rankings. Littlewood recognized two main distinctions that elevate Cluff's game from those around him.

"I think the things that separate Jack from other players is his baseball instincts - they are off the chart," Littlewood said. "You could easily see him going to coaching after this. He just has that sixth sense about what's going to happen on the field next and sees things the normal player just doesn't see. That's pretty special. And then he refuses to lose. His leadership skills and his desire to get better, his work ethic. You throw that all in (and) for me those two intangibles just really separate him.

"He's a skilled guy. He runs, he's got a plus arm, he does all these things. Not super, super athletic, but just athletic enough to get the job done. He's kind of a blue collar type guy."

Littlewood said Cluff spent time at various infield positions for BYU at the beginning of his college tenure. But the coach realized quickly where Cluff should work on the diamond with one signature play about one-third of the way through the 2019 campaign.

"It was interesting because his freshman year, before he went on his mission, he played a little bit of third, here and there, and I think he might have played a game or two at short and second," Littlewood said. "Just kind of moved around, kind of like you do in pro ball. When he came back from his mission, usually it takes those guys a little bit of time to acclimate back in and matriculate back in to being 100 percent.

"I put him at second base to get him into a comfort zone. He played there all fall. I played him a little at shortstop as well. Then about 20 games into the spring, I moved him over to shortstop. The very first play he made was at Utah Valley, kind of a slow roller that he made on the grass. After he made that play, I'm like, 'He's not coming out of that position.' He ran from there."

Playing at BYU, Littlewood understands that missions are a big part of calling to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some players take their missions after graduation. Some take them in the middle of their undergraduate experience. Littlewood knows returning to play a varsity sport after taking time off can sometimes be a rocky transition. But Cluff displayed resiliency in his return to the field.

"I didn't serve a mission, so it's hard for me to tell, but I've coached for 25 years," Littlewood said. "It's a little bit harder for pitchers, just because of the arm care and getting their arm in shape, where a hitter can just throw it 100 feet and get some live at-bats just to get the body going. When they are gone for two years, they might be able to play catch (at) 60 feet with somebody who doesn't have a glove. They literally do not practice their sport for two straight years. They don't talk about it a whole lot. They work out and they exercise every day, but it's not anything like baseball skills.

"What Cluff did to be able to come back (is) a lot like what center fielder Jacob Hannemann (11 games with Seattle Mariners in 2017) did our first year. A 2013 third-round selection with the Cubs, he came back from his mission, had never played college baseball for us, and then the Cubs took him. Jackson did kind of the same thing. For him to get slot money in that round as a return missionary was incredible. I was really happy for him. He came back and he did everything right - off the field, in the weight room, in the classroom. This guy just does everything right in life. It paid off for him when the draft came around."

The 2020 season for Littlewood will be one he will never forget because of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic shut down all collegiate sports for the season in mid-March. Baseball was one of the few spring sports that had already been playing for a while. The Cougars, like all other programs, had played 16 games and were preparing to get their West Coast Conference season underway with a home series when the news broke.

"It was crazy. We don't play on Sundays, so we play Thursday, Friday, Saturday," Littlewood said. "That Thursday was our opening league game with Loyola Marymount. My calls from my athletic director (Tom Holmoe) went from 11 a.m. (and), 'Hey, we are going to play, but nobody will be in the stands,' and then 1 p.m., it was like, 'I think we are going to have to cancel this weekend but it looks OK for the rest'. Then, all of a sudden, the Utah Jazz thing happened and the SEC made their decision. At 3:30 p.m., it was like we were 100 percent done."

Littlewood said it was an emotional experience to have to tell his players, especially his seniors, that the season was canceled.

"Walking into that clubhouse, there wasn't a dry eye," he said. "Guys had hoodies over their heads, sitting back in their lockers. It was really hard to describe. I hope it never happens again.

"Pretty much everybody was there and we have TVs in the clubhouse and they were watching ESPN and everything that was going down. This is when the NCAA canceled the College World Series, so there was no shot that we were playing. I was walking through the clubhouse doors and I literally didn't know what I was going to say to them. When I walked through the doors and I saw them I just got a calm feeling. Everybody else is going through this. We are going to make it through. Let's just make the most of it and the words just came. I don't know what I said, but the words just came out."

At the pro level, Cluff played 62 games for low Single-A Hagerstown in 2019, slashing .229/.320/.367. Like his teammates on the Nationals farm, Cluff is now waiting to get going in 2020. His experience of stepping away from the game for a time and then getting a chance to come back and play at a high level will pay dividends when baseball returns.

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