Nashua’s Kevin Nolan looks for home field edge with Double-A Fisher Cats
MANCHESTER – A cold wind whistled through Northeast Delta Dental Stadium on Tuesday, with ice under the stands making for a treacherous walk from the locker rooms to the dugouts.
At one point, a few lonely snow flakes danced in the breeze and onto the field where the Fisher Cats will open the season Thursday night against the Reading (Pa.) Phillies.
Kevin Nolan felt the penetrating cold just like everyone else. He’s been in Florida for the past few months, and spent the last two seasons playing baseball under the searing Florida sun.
But for Nolan, Tuesday also felt like home. Like those early April practices and games as a member of the Nashua South baseball team.
Nolan hasn’t spent a lot of time in New Hampshire since graduating from high school seven years ago, but on Monday night he had dinner with his parents and sister and slept in his own bed.
While teammates scramble for apartments in a city many are visiting for first time, Nolan will live at home this summer, unless his status changes as a fifth-year player in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system.
“It was nice hanging out with the family,’’ Nolan said. “It will be a little different, but it will be nice seeing my family every day and sleeping in my own bed.’’
Nolan said his parents are looking forward to seeing him play more frequently than they did in the past few years, when Nolan was stationed in Lansing, Mich., and Dunedin, Fla. He played three years of college baseball at Winthrop University in South Carolina.
“It’s been hard for them to come see me play,’’ Nolan said. “So they are excited to see me every day.’’
As for home cooking, Nolan thinks it will be good for him, “as long as I stay away from the sweets.’’ His mom, Nolan revealed, prepares a strawberry shortcake to die for.
As far as baseball is concerned, all Nolan can do is take up where he left off last summer, when he was a Florida State League All-Star enjoying his best year in the minors until a hamstring pull put the brakes on a solid season.
Nolan was hitting .316 when he felt a tweak in his left hamstring while trying to score from third on a ground ball. He missed most of the final two months of the season and was still rehabbing when spring training began.
“I didn’t see him a lot in spring training because of the hamstring pull,’’ said Fisher Cats’ manager Gary Allenson, a backup catcher for the Red Sox in the 1980s, who signed with the Blue Jays after coaching in the Orioles system. “I could tell he had good hands, and I know he’s kind of evolved into being a prospect.
“After a slow start, he’s made himself into a pretty good player.’’
Nolan hit just .191 in his professional debut with Auburn in the New York-Penn League in 2009, but came on strong at the end of the season and has hit well ever since, hitting .295 for Lansing in 2010 and .315 for Lansing when he was promoted to Dunedin during the 2011 season. In four combined seasons of Class A baseball, he’s hit .301.
It seems he’s always been behind another shortstop taken in the same draft but 16 rounds earlier, Ryan Goins, who hit .289 with the Fisher Cats last season.
When both Nolan and Goins were on the same team in Dunedin in 2011, Nolan spent time at first base, second base, third base and right field.
“I think I’ve become pretty proficient at other positions,’’ Nolan said, “and the more versatile you are, the better.’’
But he still considers himself a shortstop, the position he’s played since he was a kid. Toronto, of course, acquired shortstop Jose Reyes in the off season. Goins, who can play either middle infield position, joined Toronto’s 40-man roster in November.
He’s 25, but Nolan doesn’t look at it as a make or break year.
“I don’t think it’s a make or break,’’ Nolan said. “It’s just another year and an opportunity to play well and show them what I have.’’
And for the first time in a long time, he’ll be doing it in front of friends and family more often than not.