MESA, Ariz. -- Take a guess which Chicago Cubs player manager Joe Maddon said this about:
"[He's] one of those dudes who can get up at three in the morning and hit anybody's anything. He's that good of a hitter."
If you're thinking it has to be the reigning rookie of the year, Kris Bryant, or MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo you would be wrong. In fact this player might be considered the 25th man on the roster -- if you even remember he's around.
Infielder Tommy La Stella, 27, chuckled when he heard what his manager said about him -- and took it as an extremely high compliment.
"The respect I have for Joe is on a different level and it has absolutely nothing to do with baseball," La Stella said from Cubs camp. "He's impacted my life in so many ways. To hear him say something like that, it's very humbling."
There will be days when La Stella is more important than Javier Baez and Jorge Soler combined -- though those two backups will get much more attention. The latter two players are clearly better athletes and have more overall skills, but La Stella is the one who will be counted on to come off the bench in a clutch spot late in the game. He's Maddon's No. 1 pinch hitter. The challenge of stepping into the batter's box after sitting for 7-8 innings reduces the advantage for the better player and leans toward the one more prepared for it.
"It starts with being open-minded to the idea that it's not about me, it's about the team," La Stella said. "Not only is it tolerable but you look forward to those opportunities."
Despite an injury-riddled season stemming from an oblique strain suffered early last year, La Stella proved to be the most reliable Cub off the bench. Both the eye test and the numbers back up that statement as he went 6 for 14 (.429) with a walk coming off the bench last season. His batting average ranked second in the National League among pinch hitters with at least 14 at-bats and he simply gave a good at-bat almost every time at the plate.
"I've felt comfortable up there," La Stella said. "If I stick with my approach the results will take care of themselves. ...It becomes more laser focused in that at-bat knowing you don't have four of them to string together a process."
And egos have to be checked at the door -- even for pinch hitters. Many times getting a single at-bat in a game or over the course of several days means trying to do too much with it. That makes for bad plate appearances. La Stella has a keen eye and normally is willing to take a walk. Why should that change just because he's coming off the bench? There's a calmness about him at the plate which gives his manager confidence La Stella can get the job done. It's something the player has actually learned from the manager.
"The biggest way I've learned from Joe is just to watch him," La Stella said. "He's pure at all times. Even in the face of adversity he never changes. That unwavering certainty he carries with him is special and not many people have that. I'm able to learn by watching."
The Cubs like La Stella late in the game because he can handle fastballs, which is what most set-up men and closers use as their bread-and-butter pitch. Maddon might not need him at 3 a.m. but at about 10 p.m. on many nights La Stella will be the man in the Cubs' spotlight. But that's only if he's healthy. His nagging oblique injury nearly kept out all of 2015.
"I learned a lot about nutrition and diet and maximizing everything to stay healthy," La Stella said. "I had the right people around me this offseason."
La Stella worked a lot of "rotational" exercises making sure a repeat of his rib/oblique problem doesn't occur. And he took diet tips from laser-thin teammate Dexter Fowler. Plus, he has veteran Ben Zobrist around to help. La Stella has never spent a full season in the majors, while Zobrist just won a championship with the Royals.
"Seeing the way he [Zobrist] approaches things, every drill, everything he does is done with a purpose," La Stella said. "I marvel at guys like that. He signs a big deal, he's been around, if he took it easy no one would think anything of it but he sets an example."
La Stella might not be the key piece to the Cubs' puzzle but in those tense moments late in the game it will be his job to keep an inning alive. He's ready for the challenge.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "Staying healthy is the key."