As someone born with baseball in his blood, Chattanooga Lookouts third baseman Mitch Nay took a sizable step toward his childhood dream when he became a first-round selection in the 2012 major league draft.
What wasn't expected was a staph infection in his knee that deterred his advancement.
This is the seventh professional season for the 25-year-old Nay, but he has yet to spend a full year at Class AA. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder from Chandler, Arizona, is making the most of his highest stage yet, hitting .301 with eight home runs and 39 RBIs through 61 games this season.
"Looking back, my career obviously hasn't gone as planned, and there have been a lot of obstacles," Nay said Wednesday, "but that kind of makes this year a little bit more worthwhile. I sat on a training table for almost two years, and being able to do this kind of stuff is really fun.
"At the end of the day, if you can come out here and play, then it's a blessing. It makes this all a little more rewarding having gone through what I have."
Nay went 3-for-4 with a pair of two-run home runs during Tuesday night's 8-6 loss to the Tennessee Smokies at AT&T Field. The teams collided again late Wednesday morning, with Nay again wreaking havoc by going 2-for-3 with two walks, two runs scored and an RBI in a 9-8 defeat.
Jesse Hodges and Vimael Machin each drove in three runs for the Smokies, who dropped Nay and the Lookouts to 3-4 in the Southern League's second half.
"We had not been together before this season, so I didn't know exactly what to expect of Mitch," Lookouts manager Pat Kelly said. "He got here and got off to a slow start, so it was really hard for me to find playing time for him. We gradually got him in the lineup, and now you can't keep him out of it."
Nay is the grandson of Lou Klimchock, who was a big league infielder from 1958 to 1970 with the Kansas City Athletics, Milwaukee Braves, Washington Senators, New York Mets and Cleveland Indians. After committing to play at Arizona State, Nay instead opted for the faster track when he was tabbed late in the first round by the Toronto Blue Jays.
The start to his professional career was promising, as Nay hit .300 in 64 rookie ball games in 2013 and hit .285 with Single-A Lansing (Michigan) in the Midwest League in 2014. He entered the 2015 season as a top-10 prospect in the Blue Jays organization, but then came the staph infection and three ensuing surgeries that all but wiped out his opportunities for 2016 and 2017.
"The staph infection was the initial thing, but the aftermath was the issue," Nay said. "There was inflammation, which restricted my range of motion and kind of atrophied my muscles. I was dealing with range-of-motion issues and the muscle to go with it, and you can't really accelerate the muscle-growing process.
"That's what took 20 or 22 months. It's not like your normal rehab, where you have your return of play scheduled."
Nay tried to return late in the 2016 season but played just eight rookie games. His second return occurred midway through the 2017 season in Lansing, but the process was gradual and yielded just a .222 average in 61 games.
In December 2017, Nay was acquired by the Cincinnati Reds through the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft.
"We had good reports on him," Kelly said, "and for whatever reason, the Blue Jays left him on a roster where he was available for us to draft to where we didn't have to give up a 40-man roster spot. It was a no-brainer for us to get somebody that talented and get him into the organization."
Said Nay: "It was a breath of fresh air. I liked all the people with Toronto, but obviously I had a lot of bad memories with the injuries and the rehab."
Nay spent last season in Florida, splitting time with high Single-A Daytona and Double-A Pensacola, where he hit .262 in 63 games to help set the stage for his best season yet.
"It's been a little bit more consistent for me this year at the plate and in the field," Nay said. "I felt like I had some good spurts last year, but I would fall out of them and have a difficult time getting back into them. I had a decent year last year, but some of my stretches didn't last as long as I wanted.
"I feel like I have a little more control over that this year."
Nay has no bigger fan than Kelly, whose son Casey was a first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox and battled injuries before eventually pitching parts of four seasons in the big leagues.
"Casey spent three years injured with Tommy John (surgery) and some back problems, so I know exactly where Mitch is coming from," Kelly said. "All those years you spend rehabbing can make for a very lonely world, and nobody remembers who you are after a while, but once those guys break out and get healthy again, they seem to be a lot stronger mentally.
"Mitch has had some big hits and some big RBIs for us. I know the analytical people tell us there is no such thing as a clutch hitter, but he seems to get his hits with men in scoring position, and that's very important."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.