Jake Alu grew up a Phillies fan. When the Phils signed Bryce Harper in March, he was thrilled.
One would think that attitude might have changed once the Washington Nationals chose the Hamilton Square resident in the 23rd round of the MLB draft June 5. But Alu, who just finished his senior season at Boston College, was still just as happy.
“Hey,” he said, “it opens up a spot in the lineup.”
Whether the Princeton Day School graduate makes it that far remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt he will bust his butt trying to get there.
“Don’t be surprised if you look up in a couple years, and Jake Alu is playing every day at Double-A as kind of like your super utility guy,” Boston College coach Mike Gambino said. “He’s just such a baseball player. When you watch him play, he plays hard. He can bunt, he can run, he can move a runner, he can situationally hit, he can hit the ball out of the ballpark. He can do so many things. He can play second, short and third, right field and left field. If he picks up a couple steps to make center field an option, then you’re gonna have a guy that’s a left-handed hitter who can hit for average and do all the little things you need him to do offensively and play six different positions.”
Which is a heck of a lot to get from a package that stands just 5-foot-9. But starting in the Nottingham Little League and Nottingham Babe Ruth League, moving into PDS and travel baseball, and up through his career at BC, Alu has always been one of the height-challenged kids on the block.
He and Gambino are both on the shorter side and make jokes about it, but Gambino said, “I’m taller than him, and you can tell him I said that.”
When told, Alu countered with, “Ooohhh no way he’s taller than me.”
It’s one of those things where guys in the same situation can call each other short, but don’t let anyone else try it. Alu has made it to professional baseball by throwing it back in detractor’s faces. In fact, Gambino felt it was one of his greatest weapons.
“We would joke about that at times, and I would always end the conversation by saying, ‘If you were five inches taller you wouldn’t be the same player,’” Gambino said. “Part of his engine, and who he is, is understanding that sometimes people are gonna overlook him because of his height. So he’s got that edge, that toughness, it sort of adds to the grit. If he was four inches taller and didn’t play the game like he does, he wouldn’t be playing professional baseball. What’s turned him into such a great baseball player is how he plays the game.”
Alu was unsure if being taller would have detracted from his desire, but he is sure that being smaller fueled it.
“I think it does kind of light a fire under your feet a little bit,” he said. “You’re always gonna be doubted a lot. That’s something a lot of athletes thrive off of. When someone challenges me I like to prove them wrong.”
He started doing that as a BC sophomore. After getting just four at-bats as a freshman, Alu took advantage of an opening in left field despite the fact he had been mostly in an infielder during his career. He won the job and hit .331 with nine doubles, 23 RBI and 24 runs scored.
“He had a strong window to possibly win a job in left and he barged through it,” Gambino said.
The following season, Alu won the third base job but a season-long slump saw him hit .216 with just 38 hits. He continued to show gap power, however, with eight doubles, a triple and two home runs.
This past spring Alu returned to form, hitting .343 with 81 hits, 51 runs, 18 doubles, a triple, four homers, 40 RBI, 51 runs scored and 11 stolen bases. It was a classic display of doing a little bit of everything.
“His junior year was a little more of an anomaly,” Gambino said. “He kind of got sick right before the season and lost some weight. He struggled through that junior year a little more just because of the weight loss and not feeling well. But what he did his sophomore and senior years, that’s really who I believe he is.”
Evidently, that is who the Nationals thought he was as well as they made him the second player from Hamilton Township that they would draft in as many years. Washington took Steinert’s Anthony Peroni last year.
“As a kid you always have that dream,” Alu said. “It’s always something you think when you’re little, watching on TV. When I got to college, it was the time I realized if I worked really hard I could be there. We were playing with Justin Dunn who went in the first round (to the Mets). Just seeing all the guys throughout my career there who got drafted, I saw how hard they worked, and the work ethic they have and how good you have to be and how much fight you have to have. It kind of motivated me. It made me want to work that hard to get there.”
Alu didn’t just work hard, he learned to pay attention and take advantage of all the opportunities to observe greatness. He recalled a pre-game warm-up as a freshman, where he was lamenting about not playing in the game. Johnny Adams, a junior at the time on the verge of being drafted by the Mariners, gave Alu some veteran wisdom.
“He said, ‘Watch these guys, you can learn from them,’ because that’s what he did as a freshman,” Alu said. “I took that seriously and I started watching guys on my team, guys on the other team and what they did. I did that for the rest of my career and it really helped me.
“Seeing the (Atlantic Coast Conference) pitching and the players you’re playing against, it helped tremendously, there’s so many good players. You watch them and see what they do well. You kind of learn as well. Even if they’re younger than you, if they are top prospects you can watch them and learn from it. I think if I didn’t play in the ACC or play in one of those top conferences, you really wouldn’t understand a lot of what needs to be done.”
Alu parlayed that understanding with his talent to embark upon a professional career. He was initially assigned to a mini-camp in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he was indoctrinated to the Nationals mindset.
“We did individual work with coaches, meeting the ground rules for all the Washington National way of doing things,” he said. “We did infield, we hit a lot. It was wake-up at six in the morning and go ’til 3 o’clock so it was a pretty long day. It was cool, we actually got the chance to face a first-rounder from two years ago, and we faced a kid who’s been bumping up and down from Triple-A who’s down there rehabbing. He’s been in the majors, so that was a really cool experience.”
From there, Alu was assigned to the Auburn Doubledays, a short-season Rookie League team in the New York-Penn League. As luck would have it, Alu is joining Peroni, his former teammate at NLL and Nottingham Babe Ruth. Peroni suffered through a back issue last year and missed virtually all season, so it’s like the two are starting out together.
“This is gonna be awesome,” Alu said. Since we were kids we feed off each other in a baseball game.”
“He texted me and told me,” Peroni said. “When he called me and told me, we both said the same thing—it’s great to be teammates together again.”
Knowing Peroni puts Alu at an advantage, as his friend gave him valuable advice on what to expect; and how to handle the routine.
“Routine is the biggest thing in baseball, it helps you with consistency,” Alu said. “Once you get in a little routine and knowing your schedule each day, going about it and getting yourself prepared, that’s really important.”
Alu was drafted as a utilityman, which Gambino feels gives him yet another advantage.
“He’s a really good defender, he can turn a double play at second, he’s got the arm strength and hand speed for short, he’s got the arm strength to play third,” the coach said. “He can play left and right. When you can situational hit, two-strike hit and play all over the field then that guy’s got a chance to help you in the lower levels of your organization. Then as he moves up, he kind of keep getting the chance and maybe shows he can help you at the big league level someday. That’s kind of his path if he’s able to do it.”
And Gambino feels he can do it.
“I was really confident he was gonna get drafted,” Gambino said. “I wasn’t exactly sure where he would get drafted, I knew there was a bunch of teams on him. I knew whoever took him, when he goes out there, they’re gonna be really happy with their draft. He’s gonna play for a while, I think he’s gonna have a chance.”