Describing Abiatal Avelino’s hot start as a surprise would be an understatement.
The 23-year-old infielder was sporting a .356 batting average and International League-leading 13 RBI heading into Friday’s series opener. But here’s the catch — the career .269 hitter has been batting out of the No. 8 and 9 holes this season and if it wasn’t for Miguel Andujar’s call-up prior to Opening Day, this hot start might be nonexistent.
It wasn’t until Wednesday’s series finale in Gwinnett that Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders manager Bobby Mitchell moved Avelino up his lineup.
Sitting in the top 10 in RBI, batting average, total bases and stolen bases league-wide, Avelino’s strong start is one of the reasons his team has gotten out of the gates quickly as well. In fact, he delivered Scranton/Wilkes-Barre its very first win with his walk-off three-run homer against Syracuse in the season opener.
“I’m trying to just play, enjoy and work on some of my mechanics, like my hitting, and that’s it,” Avelino said. “I feel very comfortable and very happy right now because I’ve never started like this. I saw everything and I said, ‘Oh my God.’”
From the standpoint of Mitchell, who’s managed Avelino each of the last two seasons, this isn’t a start that he’s accustom to from the infielder.
The fact that the Avelino has been playing every day for the RailRiders, has gotten comfortable in the batter’s box and has been able to stay through the middle of the field in his approach at the plate has played a role in his early-season success.
“He’s been outstanding for us,” Mitchell said. “We’re happy to have him swinging the bat well and playing well. He’s been a mainstay for us at short, obviously since Gleyber (Torres’) not playing much short. One of these days I’ll be able to give him a rest or something, but right now, when he’s hot — if I was playing I’d want to play, too.”
For a player who has primarily been a utility man off the bench throughout his career — only playing over 100 games twice in the last six seasons — Avelino has adjusted well to his everyday role.
With Torres, the New York Yankees top prospect and natural shortstop, seeing the majority of his time at third base — the 21-year-old has only played three games at shortstop — this season, and a game at second, shortstop has been left unmanned for Avelino this season. The 2011 minor league free agent has taken over in 10 games along with two starts at second and a game in right field.
While Avelino has been effective in the field, only committing one error, the everyday play has allowed him to get comfortable at the plate.
“He hasn’t played this much — I don’t think — early in the seasons because he’s always been the utility-type guy that’s played off and on. That’s probably part of it,” Mitchell said. “When you’re playing every day and you know you’re going to play, it’s a lot easier to hit and play like that. I have not seen him get off to a start like this yet, but probably because of that reason — he hasn’t played daily and when you play sporadically it’s tough to keep things going.”
For someone who wasn’t even suppose to be in the Opening Day lineup, Avelino has forced Mitchell’s hand this season, moving him from the bottom of the lineup to the No. 5 hitter.
It was a decision Mitchell was hesitant to make at first, not wanting to mess with Avelino’s groove, but after he turned into one of the RailRiders’ best hitters Mitchell had to slide the infielder up the order. And Avelino’s proved Mitchell right.
Batting out of the five-hole on Wednesday, Avelino was 3-for-4 with an RBI. He was 1-for-4 on Friday.
“I’m always a little tentative to take a guy out of a spot where he’s doing well because sometimes they tend to put more pressure on themselves when they move up the lineup,” Mitchell said. “He did not do that (Wednesday) when he got three hits.”
“It changes just a little because I have a plan when I go to (the plate). I have a plan and that’s it,” Avelino said.
While Avelino is known to pull balls, he’s been able to square up a lot of balls this season.
When he’s able to square up the bat and “stay through the middle of the field” Avelino has been able to take the ball the other way. His best example of that was the walk-off home run that took everyone, even Avelino, by surprise.
He was able to take a pitch the other way into right field on Wednesday against the Gwinnett Stripers as well.
“He’s hitting the ball well. He doesn’t have any cheap hits,” Mitchell said. “Everything’s going well for him right now. Just keep on rolling and not press and keep doing what he’s doing and he’ll help us a lot.”
However, 13 games is a small sample size.
Just about everyone has a hot stretch for this long at some point during their season.
Avelino’s ready to turn this hot start, with his .347 batting average ranking second among fellow RailRiders, into the best campaign of his young career.
And he feels more than capable of doing that.
“Yeah, I can do it. I think about that everyday and I say, ‘I can do it,’” Avelino said.
Reach DJ Eberle at 570-991-6398 or on Twitter @ByDJEberle