Love of the game drives No. 9 prospect Nay

For all of senior Mitch Nay’s accomplishments during his high school days, the one he remembers most fondly is a loss.

Nay’s spectacular junior season helped his Hamilton (Chandler, Ariz.) Huskies reach the Class 5A, Division I baseball title game against Mountain Pointe (Phoenix, Ariz.). The fourth-seeded Huskies battled hard but dropped a heartbreaking game, 7-6, in eight innings.

For many athletes, a loss like that would be devastating. For Nay, it was exhilarating.

“That’s something I’ll always remember,” he said. “It was a great game. It went to extra innings, and we ended up losing, but it was still the most fun I’ve ever had playing the game. I’m with my best friends, against good competition, it was back and forth for seven innings, and the whole atmosphere was great.”

Baseball can be a grind more than a game for top recruits. Yet for the nation’s No. 9 prospect in the ESPN 100, a childlike appreciation of the sport helps him stay grounded, all the while proving why the Arizona State signee has a chance to be selected in the early rounds of this June’s MLB draft.

“He’s performing very well for us,” said Hamilton head coach Mike Woods. “When you factor in that he’s having to deal with all of the pressures of the scrutiny, where he’s going to be drafted, everybody watching, and teams not giving him much to hit, he’s doing super.”

For Nay, the last part — teams not giving him much to hit — has been the toughest. Last season, the third baseman hit .495, cracked 14 home runs and added 54 RBIs. This season, those numbers are down because teams are staying away from the powerful senior star.

“It’s actually been really tough,” Nay said. “It’s taken some getting used to. Sometimes you get in that zone where you’re sure they won’t throw you a strike, and then you get a pitch to hit and you won’t be ready. In the beginning of the season, I was really aggressive. I was not swinging at good pitches. It’s definitely been an adjustment.”

His patience at the plate has been a big improvement this season. So has his work ethic. Nay says it wasn’t until last summer that he really understood his talent on the diamond could take him places — places beyond even the college level.

Since then, he’s been a gym rat, constantly working out, taking his batting practice sessions more seriously and studying every aspect of his approach at the plate.

“He had a huge swing over the last couple of years," Woods said, "but he’s refining it, shortened it, and he’s gotten it under control.”

Nay says that longer swing reared its ugly head again at the start of this season. So he headed to the film room and watched a tournament from last summer, when he felt his swing was more repeatable. He made some adjustments, and the results — including five home runs in the last two weeks of the regular season — spoke for themselves.

Nay’s offense is what attracts scouts and sold Arizona State. But it’s his defense that keeps them watching. While ESPN senior baseball analyst Keith Law believes Nay will eventually shift to the outfield, Woods disagrees.

“He looks like a professional third baseman,” the coach says. “He’s got a major league arm right now across the diamond. He’s got more work to do defensively — everyone does — but he could play at that level defensively.”

It may not be long until we see Nay at that level. The senior says he’s unsure about his next step, and it will depend on where he’s selected in the MLB draft. He says all but two or three MLB teams have visited his home or showed up at his games, and a few have shown particularly strong interest.

For Nay, there are benefits to either side of the equation. He’s long dreamed of playing professionally, but he doesn’t want to rush it, either. And the allure of Arizona State is strong.

“I’ve always wanted to go to ASU,” he says. “The college lifestyle would be a lot of fun. And I’d still probably get to the majors from there. If it’s pro, it’s pro, but if it’s ASU, I’d be glad to go there for three years. I’ll figure it out.”

“He’s got a lot of people in his ear about what’s next,” Woods adds. “No matter what he decides, I’m sure he’ll be successful.”

Nay isn’t all baseball, all the time. Woods says his star hitter is also a star student. He’s got a grade-point average well above 4.0, and it took years for many of his teachers to realize he was a baseball player, much less the nation’s second-ranked third baseman.

And now, with the biggest summer of his life ahead of him, Nay isn't altering his fun-loving approach.

“It’s been a learning process,” he said. “I’ve never had this many eyes on me before. It’s taken some getting used to. But no matter how many eyes are on me, the game is still the game.”