Syracuse Chiefs leadoff batter Trea Turner fouled off the first pitch from Durham Bulls pitcher Justin Marks.
Then he blasted the next one over the wall in left field. The Tuesday night crowd at Durham Bulls Athletic Park cheered lightly as Turner trotted the bases like he was right at home. In a way, he was.
In the second game of a three-day “homecoming” series for the former N.C. State star shortstop, Turner went 2 for 5 and scored twice to lead Triple-A Syracuse (N.Y.) to a 6-4 win, further strengthening his case for a full-time major league call-up that has been rumored to be in the cards for weeks.
But in the meantime, this was Turner’s week to enjoy a rare visit to the Triangle.
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“Getting to come back and see people I haven’t seen in a long time – see my parents, see my girlfriend – has been nice,” Turner said. “You don’t get to see them much way up in Syracuse.”
Since graduating from N.C. State in 2014 and being selected in the first round of the 2014 MLB draft, Turner has been touring minor leagues throughout the country: He spent July 4, 2014, playing with the Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds in Boise, Idaho, and July 4, 2015, in Syracuse.
It’s been fun getting a chance to come back down here and play on this field again.
Trea Turner, former N.C. State baseball star
This July Fourth, Turner was able to play in front of, and then enjoy a fireworks show with, his friends and family at Monday’s series opener.
“This might’ve been the biggest (July Fourth game) I’ve played in – probably the nicest stadium out of those three,” he said. “It’s been fun getting a chance to come back down here and play on this field again.”
Turner batted .342 with 121 RBIs and 113 stolen bases during his three-year tenure with the Wolfpack from 2012 to 2014, helping the team qualify for the College World Series in 2013.
He still keeps in touch with coach Elliott Avent and said he was “pretty hurt” by N.C. State’s NCAA Regionals loss to Coastal Carolina this season.
But the 23-year-old, who was born in Florida, has little time to keep close tabs on his alma mater – he’s busy trying to find his way to Washington, D.C., to play for the Nationals.
In 81 games this season as the first hitter in the order for Syracuse, the Nationals’ top minor-league affiliate, Turner has batted .301 (ranking seventh in the International League) with 33 RBIs and 24 stolen bases (leading the league). And in two appearances for the Nationals in June, he went 3 for 3 at the plate.
Syracuse manager Billy Gardner Jr. said he’s been thrilled by Turner’s consistent hitting success as well as his improvement in fielding and throwing.
“He’s getting on base and creating havoc and stealing bases and puts a lot of pressure on the defense. It gives us a lot of energy, and we feed off that,” Gardner said. “He’s really worked hard defensively. He’s really gotten better in his angles, his reads off the bag at shortstop, accuracy with his throws.”
Per instructions from their parent club, the Chiefs have recently played Turner – a shortstop throughout his career – in center field.
He made his fifth appearance in the outfield on Tuesday, just one day after the Nationals energized call-up speculation by demoting center fielder Michael Taylor to Triple-A.
“We wanted to take a look at him there to see if it would expand his versatility,” Gardner said. “The footwork is a little different in the outfield than it is in the infield, but he’s made the adjustment real well.”
Turner said he manned center field occasionally growing up and, although he would prefer playing shortstop, welcomes any chance to improve his odds of making the majors.
On Tuesday at least, the change didn’t seem to be a problem. Turner caught three fly balls and fielded one hit to center without an error.
And by the time he made contact on his final at-bat of the night – this time, a ground out in the top of the ninth inning – Syracuse was already well on its way to a win, clinching a series victory in Turner’s Triangle homecoming. The Chiefs were scheduled to play the Bulls again Wednesday night.
“The Bulls I’ve never actually seen play here before – it’s always been Duke or the ACC tournament – but it’s been fun getting to play in front of a lot of N.C. State fans,” Turner said.