RALEIGH Any other year and Trea Turner would have the spotlight to himself Thursday night in the Major League Baseball draft.
N.C. State has produced three first-round picks in the past 25 years, and the junior shortstop is projected to go higher than any of them. But in this draft, Turner almost certainly will be the second Wolfpack player off the board, behind pitcher Carlos Rodon.
That’s fine with Turner, undersized and overlooked for most of his career – even cut twice (twice!) by his travel team in south Florida. He’s not seeking the adulation. Truth be told, the baby-faced Turner prefers a little bit of doubt.
“He has always felt like he has had to prove himself,” Turner’s father, Mark said. “I think he actually likes it that way.”
Thursday’s first round, during which Baseball America projects Turner to go ninth to the Toronto Blue Jays, will be the first true validation of all Turner’s work since high school.
His travel team cut him after his freshman and sophomore years, although it wasn’t that big of a surprise, his father said. All the powerful college programs in the state of Florida – Florida, Florida State and Miami were all regional hosts this week in the NCAA tournament – and none wanted Turner out of Park Vista High in 2011. Only Florida Atlantic and N.C. State made him scholarship offers. The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the 20th round, but it was more of a flier on an exceptional athlete.
Even Turner can marvel at how far he has come, leaving N.C. State with Rodon as the first two players to earn All-American honors in three seasons. Turner set the school record for stolen bases in a season (57 as a freshman in 2012) and career (117 in three seasons). He also boasts a .341 career batting average and 203 career runs.
“Looking back on it, I don’t think I was a very good high school player,” Turner said. “I still have a lot of improving to do, but I’m a lot better now than I was then. It’s interesting to see how far I’ve come and the adjustments I’ve made.”
Rail thin kid also freak of athlete
Trea Turner was only 5-foot-4 when he was a freshman in high school. So getting cut from his travel team (like basketball, the summer circuit is where college programs find their talent) was not completely unexpected, his father said. But Turner grew four inches during his sophomore year (he’s now 6-foot-1) and had hoped to make the team and make an early impression on college scouts.
“It makes a good story, but it wasn’t a shocker,” Mark Turner said. “The second time he was upset and that made him work a little harder. It turned out to be a good thing.”
Turner, who’s rail thin at 171 pounds and will need to show his ID long after he turns 21 on June 30, has always been dismissed because of his size and youthful looks.
Even when Turner showed up at N.C. State, catcher Brett Austin wasn’t sure Turner was in the right place.
“We were hanging around the batting cages and he was real skinny and he looked like was 12 years old,” said Austin, who has lived with Turner and Rodon the past three years.
The fitness test was the next day, Austin said, so a few of the players started to do some of the drills, including the broad jump.
“I went and then Logan Ratledge went and then Trea just destroyed us,” Austin said.
Turner’s best jump in the broad jump is 10 feet, 1 inch, or five inches short of what Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins did at the NFL combine, to put it in perspective. Turner also has a 32-inch vertical jump and can bench press 245 pounds.
Speed remains Turner’s top tool, a “plus-plus” in scouting jargon. Before this season, he ran the 60-yard dash between 6.25 and 6.36 seconds, depending on the stop watch. The last time he ran the 40-yard dash, three years ago, he ran a sub-4.4.
“He’s just a freak of an athlete,” Austin said. “And the way he has grown and gotten stronger, he’s only getting better.”
Ready to move on, always
After a slow start to his junior season, Turner led the Wolfpack with eight home runs and was third with a .321 average. He led the ACC in runs (65) and stolen bases (26), even though that total was less than half as many bases as he stole as a freshman.
It was a “tough” season to handle, Turner said, because the team didn’t live up to its expectations after going to the College World Series a year ago and for the way it ended, with a 4-3 loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament.
For all of the plays Turner made in three seasons at N.C. State, his legacy will include two famous outs – one as a runner against UNC in his last game and one as a hitter against UCLA in the CWS last year.
Turner gets asked more about the UCLA play, a long drive that looked like a home run in any other park in the country except the one in Omaha, Neb., because “it was on TV and everyone saw it,” Turner said.
After beating UNC 7-1 in the CWS opener, N.C. State trailed UCLA 2-1 in the eighth inning with a chance to put a stranglehold on a spot in the national championship round. Turner came up against ace closer Dave Berg with runners on first and second.
Turner crushed the first pitch to deep left field, he even pumped his fist on the way to first base, only for UCLA’s Christoph Bono to track it down at the wall. The Bruins won that game and went on to win the national title. It’s as close as N.C. State has been to winning a national championship, in any sport, since 1983.
That out still stings, so does the controversial play against the Tar Heels on May 20 in Greensboro. Down 4-3 in the fifth inning, Turner took off from third base when he noticed catcher Korey Dunbar wasn’t paying attention to him.
He slid in under the tag of Dunbar but was called out by umpire Mark Chapman. The ACC’s head of officials has since apologized to N.C. State for Chapman’s errant call, but it doesn’t change the result of the play.
N.C. State lost the game, which both teams agreed beforehand would be pivotal in their NCAA tournament fate. The Wolfpack was left out of the NCAA field, UNC was not.
Turner has made peace with the call and how the season ended.
“What are you going to do about it? You can’t get a call changed at home plate, unless you have replay and we don’t have replay,” Turner said. “Once it happened – yeah I was ticked off, I thought I was safe – but you have to let it go.
“Who knows that might have changed our season if I was called safe. We don’t know. But you can’t bank on that or look back on that and be pissed. You just have to move on.”
Turner’s not just saying that to look good in the media, his dad said, that’s the way he feels.
“He has always had a short memory,” Mark Turner said. “In baseball, there’s always another at-bat, another inning, another game.”
And for Trea Turner, overlooked no more, his next game will be in the minor leagues, after working his way into a first-round pick.
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