Successful players await their opportunity to break through and seize their chance when it arises. Lou Gehrig’s legendary streak of appearances started when he was penciled in to the starting lineup one day in the stead of slumping first baseman Wally Pipp. Gehrig made the most of his opportunity, and—2,130 consecutive games later—found himself the owner of one of baseball’s most legendary records.
It always starts somewhere. Just ask Austin Slater.
After entering Stanford as one of the premier baseball prospects in the country, sitting on the bench his freshman year was an adjustment for current sophomore Slater.
“My role was to be a backup, you know, come in whenever I needed to be called in, get at bats whenever we were up or down by a lot,” Slater reminisced as he chuckled. “It was tough, sitting on the bench. That was really the first time I’d ever done that in my life.”
But Slater said his time on the bench was motivation for him to work harder over the summer and during the fall to prove to the coaches that he deserved a spot on the field.
Earlier this season, Slater finally got his shot when one of Stanford’s premier power hitters, right fielder Austin Wilson, went down with an injury that left a hole in the middle of the lineup.
Slater was slotted into right field in the injured slugger’s place and he took advantage of the opportunity. After going 0-3 in his first start at Rice, he notched two hits in each of four games in a row and played a role in helping the Cardinal team achieve its early-season nine-game winning streak. The sophomore currently leads the team with eight doubles, has a .308 batting average—third among the Cardinal’s everyday starters—and is tied for the team lead with 18 RBI.
However, it wasn’t always so clear to Slater that his story would take that happy turn.
As a senior at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2011, Austin Slater was considered the best prospect in the state by Prospect Wire. He was prepared to anchor the left side of the infield and lead Bolles to its third consecutive state championship as the team’s captain. Even though he had already committed to Stanford, several professional baseball franchises were keeping an eye on him, some even inviting him to workouts. All signs pointed to future success.
All that, however, changed in the blink of an eye after he landed awkwardly during a friendly game of Frisbee. X-rays showed that his ankle was broken and would require surgery. The prognosis was grim: the star infielder would likely be out for the duration of the season, with a possibility of returning for the playoffs.
“You never see an injury like that happening,” said Slater. “I was just messing around with my friends, not even on the baseball field. It’s always shocking when you injure yourself doing something kind of mundane, and it kind of changes your mentality about how you go about approaching regular activities.”
Not only did the injury rob him of what could have been a spectacular senior season, but it also affected Slater’s mentality moving forward as he came to Stanford, making Slater what he described as “a little trigger-shy.”
“I felt like my summer and the fall coming back after [the injury], I was kind of still feeling the effects mentally, not really feeling like I was at 100-percent, and not really sure what my body could do,” Slater recalled. “I had a mental block, I guess, coming off that injury.”
Despite sitting out his senior season, Slater was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 44th round of the 2011 MLB draft. However, he honored his commitment to Stanford and passed up the chance to sign in order to get an education on The Farm.
His baseball career at Stanford, however, started out slowly. There was simply no space for the freshman Slater in the crowded 2012 Stanford lineup—big names like Stephen Piscotty and Kenny Diekroeger manned the left side of the infield. The former high school star found himself in an unfamiliar situation—relegated to a bench role, he only appeared in seven games all season.
The outlook has changed this season, as a solid showing last summer gave Slater the boost he needed to succeed for the Cardinal this spring.
“A lot of it’s the confidence thing. Coming off that injury, I guess I wasn’t really comfortable at the plate,” Slater said. “I played summer ball in Rhode Island and got a lot of at-bats and came into the fall ready to hit.”
Filling Wilson’s spot in the lineup did involve a significant position change, as Slater shifted to right field from his natural position at shortstop. Slater said although he felt shaky at first, he is feeling “pretty good about it right now.” He added that playing a little bit of right field in high school helped him make the adjustment.
“It was nice, you know, it’s definitely a confidence-booster once you start getting on a roll, feeling like you belong in the lineup,” Slater said. “That’s huge for confidence and confidence is a big part of baseball, especially at the plate, and I’ve carried that through the rest of the year so far.”
With a healthy Austin Wilson returning to man his position in right field, however, Slater is back to fighting for playing time at spots around the field. Even though he was kept out of the lineup the past two games, Slater said he is focused on continuing to work hard.
When asked about the possibility of being drafted a second time, Slater simply stated, “If I’m drafted again or someone thinks I’m able to play baseball at the next level, I’d love to play. I’m just playing it by ear at this point and hopefully I’ll get a shot to play at the next level. Hopefully, I’ll be able to follow my dreams.”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.