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#TGW: National Breakout!

March 23, 2015

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

When a prospect is ready to take that final step to the next level it’s frequently referred to turning the corner.

Matt Skole has found that the best way to turn the corner is to change corners.

Skole, who manned the hot corner on The Flats for three years (2009-11) earning the team’s Rookie of the Year in 2009, First-Team All-ACC in 2010, team MVP and Second-Team All-ACC in 2011 (leading the team with a .348 average and 58 RBIs), has found that he can take that final step to the Major Leagues by improving his footwork at first base for the Washington Nationals.

The move is an adjustment and one he’s made flawlessly since being selected by the Washington in the fifth round of the 2011 Draft (No. 157 overall)

“I love going over to first,” said the 25-year-old native of Woodstock, Ga., who first played both corner spots in 2012. “I feel a little better over there now that I got in a little better shape this offseason and had some time to work on my body and not worry about trying to get healthy. Right now it’s good and I’m working every day to get better.”

Ironically, the move to first led to the biggest setback of his career.

Skole had been Washington’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2012, after tearing up tearing up Potomac (A) and Hagerstown (High-A), batting a combined .291, with 27 homers, 104 RBIs, and a .586 slugging percentage. He even went 11-for-11 in stolen bases! (Skole had been 4-for-9 in three years at Georgia Tech, 1-for-4 his junior year). But in the eighth inning of April 5, 2013, only the second game of the season, with Hagerstown trailing 14-3, Skole suffered a microfracture in his left wrist as well as a severed ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow in a collision at first with Bowie’s Ty Kelly.

Skole required Tommy John surgery and nearly a year of rehab.

“It definitely was the last thing that went through my mind,” he said. “It was really a freak injury but it happens and there’s nothing you can do about it but move forward. Finally I don’t have any pain or anything. I feel like I’m just going out there every day and worrying about playing and not staying healthy.”

The 2014 season was a rough one as Skole hit .241 with 14 home runs, 68 RBIs and a career-high 127 strikeouts at Hagerstown. But he felt better for getting through it.

“I feel like everybody has to fail in order to succeed,” he said. “Last year the biggest thing for me was just to get at-bats back. After missing a whole year, just getting back to being normal and playing every day and going out there and being healthy.”

In 2015 Spring Training, a healthy Skole is looking more like the feared lefty slugger who still ranks in Georgia Tech’s top 20 in home runs (47, 6th), runs batted in (179, 16th), total bases (415, 16th) and slugging percentage (.609, 18th), as he’s hitting a robust .400 (8-for-20), with two homers, seven RBIs and a .727 slugging percentage, all among Nats’ leaders.

He knows he has a tough row to hoe as far as cracking the Nationals lineup, as Anthony Rendon, one of the top young third basemen in the National League, starts at third while Ryan Zimmerman, the fourth overall pick in 2005 and an All-Star and Gold Glove winner at third, has moved to first.

But what might be seen as a closed door for playing time, Skole sees an open window of opportunity to learn.

“Those guys are classy veterans and I try to take something from them every day,” he said. “Rendon and I played together all the way up, pretty much. In Harrisburg, when I got hurt, he was there. We’ve been close friends. Just learning from those guys is what I’m here to do.”

The relationship can get a little more dicey with Zimmerman, a former two-time All-American and two-time All-ACC performer at Virginia.

“Of course, if something goes on we’re always fighting, whether it’s baseball or football or basketball,” he said, with a laugh. “We’re always bringing our alma maters back and fighting with each other about who’s going to win. But it’s just fun and games and it gives us something to do.”

Skole didn’t have a chance to let Zimmerman know his thoughts on the Yellow Jackets during last year’s run to the ACC Tournament Championship, but he certainly was watching and is ready to pounce as he watches the Jackets this year.

“Oh yeah. Of course. I talk with Coach Hall every now and then and check in on those guys, make sure they’re doing well,” he said. “He’s got a good program and a good team this year. They’re a little young but we’ll see what happens.”

This spring Skole actually has had an ally with which to watch GT Baseball, as catcher Cole Leonida, who played with Skole during the 2009 and 2010 seasons and was drafted by the Nats in the sixth round of the `10 Draft, is with the club.

“It’s always fun playing with Cole since we played together in college for a couple of years,” he said.

Those were great years for Skole, who sighted his game-winning, two-run triple in the six-run eighth inning of Tech’s 6-4 come-from-behind win over Georgia, on April 27, 2010, in the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Spring Baseball Classic at Turner Field as his fondest memory as a Yellow Jacket. The triple actually followed a single by Leonida. That game ranked even higher than the 25-6 rout in Athens only two weeks earlier, during which he went 2-for-4, with a homer, three runs, and five RBIs.

“Those games are always fun but that was the biggest memory for me,” said Skole.

Ideally, his biggest memory for now.

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