By DAVID HAYS
Lander Sports Information
GREENWOOD – Lander's 2012 baseball season was magical with a move to an impressive new stadium, a school record in victories, and a first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. And one of the enduring memories of the season was senior shortstop AJ Nunziato making play after remarkable play in the field while providing timely hitting.
Nunziato was finally rewarded last week with a professional baseball contract with the independent Frontier League's Washington (Pa.) Wild Things.
But Nunziato's road to professional baseball had many potholes, including a painful sophomore season that ended in lower back surgery, a red-shirt year when he didn't get to play at all while recovering from that surgery, and then a disappointing Major League Baseball Draft when his name wasn't called.
Nunziato had an impressive senior year from the shortstop position, showing tremendous range that enabled him to get his glove on a lot of balls that others couldn't reach.
But he was also able to provide more offense than most teams get from their shortstops, leading the Bearcats in batting average (.345), doubles (19), triples (four), at-bats (235), hits (81) and runs (49).
The switch hitter was second on the team to senior first baseman Jordan Owens with seven homers and 45 RBI, and also stole nine bases in 12 attempts.
The South Setauket, N.Y., native was hoping his fielding ability and production would lead to being drafted by a Major League team in June.
"I was a little disappointed," he said of not getting drafted. "I understand that I have overcome some injuries and there are a lot of good players out there. I thought I was deserving of a shot. I was a little disappointed that I didn't go in the draft."
Lander head coach Kermit Smith said he thought Nunziato could get drafted.
"I think he was on a lot of draft boards coming down to the last couple days of the draft," the coach said. "His name didn't get called. But he is definitely one of the better athletes and middle infielders in our area."
Nunziato now takes the draft omission in stride.
"I think everything happens for a reason. Here I am, still playing professional baseball, maybe affiliated baseball is years or months to come. We'll see what happens."
The Frontier League is an independent league not affiliated with any Major League teams. Though not part of the official minor league system, its level of play is considered comparable to low Class A-level, and Frontier League teams have sold many players to Major League organizations.
The Wild Things play in Washington, Pa., located about 30 miles southwest of downtown Pittsburgh. Their head coach is Chris Bando, a former College World Series hero with Arizona State who went on to have a career in the Major Leagues (his brother Sal Bando played for the three-time World Series Champion Oakland Athletics in the 1970s).
Chris Bando formerly coached the Aiken Foxhounds, a South Coast League independent team. Wild Things assistant coaches include former Major Leaguers Lenny Randle and Jim Tatum.
Nunziato got noticed in a Frontier League tryout in Detroit in June.
"I went to a tryout in Detroit a couple weeks ago and worked out, and the head guy there, Nick Belmonte, liked me and said he was going to try to get me a job," Nunziato said.
"Three days ago (July 4th), I got a call from him saying this team, the Washington Wild Things, wanted to take a look at me. They wanted me to come down for a one-on-one tryout. I came down and they signed me that night."
Nunziato debuted Friday night, July 6, going 1-for-4 with a double and two walks in an extra-inning loss against the Schaumberg (Ill.) Boomers. He hit second in the order as the team's starting shortstop.
He delivered his first professional RBI the next night, going 1-for-3 with two more walks in Schaumberg. Through Sunday, July 8, Nunziato, who moved down to third in the order in Sunday's series finale, is 3-for-10 (.300) with a double, two RBI, five walks and five runs scored. He has been on base in eight of his 15 plate appearances.
"They had middle infielders that were good defensively, but they were looking for somebody who could provide a little more offensive strength," Nunziato said from his hotel room in the Chicago suburbs as the Wild Things prepared for the second game of the series.
"I am thrilled (about signing)," Nunziato said. "It's like a dream come true. It's professional baseball. To be here, it's amazing. Not many people can say they played professional baseball, at any level."
Nunziato left his Long Island home for Lander in 2007, and hit .282 with four homers, 21 RBI, and 17 steals in as many attempts during his freshman year in 2008.
But he injured himself during offseason workouts and despite a hot start in 2009 when the sophomore batted .391 with three homers and 23 RBI in 21 games, he had to shut his season down. He missed the last 27 games of his sophomore year, and had to sit out the entire 2010 season.
Nunziato had a herniated disc between L4 and L5 (lumbar spine), resulting in a pinched nerve that caused pain down his right leg. He said the injury occurred when he was lifting weights during team workouts in December 2008.
But he played through early March of the 2009 season.
"I played the first 20-something games without feeling too great," he said. "They kept trying to diagnose it and figure out what it was. It was tough to diagnose. Eventually they figured out what it was when it got to the point where I couldn't play anymore because there was too much pain. My body wasn't holding up. I had to take myself out because it was getting to the point where I was hurting myself more and I wasn't being much help to the team."
So he had lower back surgery and wouldn't be ready to play official games again until 2011.
"It was very difficult," Nunziato acknowledged. "I missed about half my sophomore year and then I was out for another year before coming back. I was out for almost two years without doing anything baseball related.
As a red-shirt junior in 2011, Nunziato hit .293 with four homers and 29 RBI.
"It was tough coming back. My junior year was not a horrible year, but it wasn't the best year that I have ever had. It had to do with getting back into the swing of things, getting my timing back, and getting the feel of the game again."
Nunziato played in a wooden bat summer league for the Coastal Plain League's Martinsville (Va.) Mustangs in 2011, was honored as a CPL Hitter of the Week, and played in the league's All-Star game.
He followed the summer experience with a stellar senior year at Lander, helping the team earn a school record 38 victories, a rare winning season in his career.
"My high school team (Ward Melville High School) was never a winning team," he said. "At Lander, in the beginning, we were never a winning team. I had always been around a .500 team everywhere I go, except for maybe little league."
But he expects the winning to continue at Lander.
"I was there five years and we have come a long ways in those five years as a program," Nunziato said. "As a baseball team and a coaching staff, we have made huge strides making Lander more of a competitive threat in the Peach Belt Conference.
"I feel like with Coach Smith and Coach (Chris) Anderson there, I think we will see some pretty awesome things in the future."
Nunziato is one of five Lander players who are competing professionally. Former teammates Darrin Tew and Ross Davis are pitching for the Frontier League rival Southern Illinois Miners, who will host the Wild Things in Marion, Ill., in mid-July.
"It will be good to see the guys again, competing at a higher level. It will be fun," Nunziato said of Tew and Davis. "I might get to hit against them like we have been for the last couple years (in practice)."
Another Lander pitcher, Chris Thomas, just signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization and is playing short-season Class A ball in Yakima, Wash. Converted infielder Alan Abreu is pitching for the Gulf Coast League Astros in Kissimmee, Fla.
The Frontier League is a new experience for Nunziato, who was familiar with only one player on the Washington team, that being Lander teammate Michael White's summer ball Alaska Fire teammate Taylor Oldham.
"You are kind of the outsider. You don't really know anybody. You are just another college guy coming in. You are trying to impress and trying to make friends while getting acclimated with the whole situation," Nunziato said.
"But you can't try to do too much playing this game. You have to stay within yourself and stick to your approach, have a good time and enjoy it. How many guys get a chance to play professional baseball? You have to enjoy every minute of it. It's going to be an adventure and I am looking forward to every step."