TJ Friedl, perhaps the most unlikely of the 22 Nevada Wolf Pack baseball alums to reach the majors, homered in his second big-league at-bat and got the ball as a souvenir thanks to an assist from Mookie Betts.
The 26-year-old Friedl was called up to the majors by the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday and popped out in his first at-bat. He got another chance to pinch hit Sunday and rocketed a homer into the right-field bleachers on the first pitch he saw from Tony Gonsolin to lead off the sixth inning. Friedl, whose homer went 100.5 miles per hour and traveled 385 feet, added a single in the eighth inning.
Immediately after Friedl's homer, Dodgers right-fielder Mookie Betts called to the fan who caught the ball, Michael Diddle, and asked for the ball so he could throw return it to the Reds so Friedl could keep the memento.
"I got you," Betts told the fan from Portsmouth, Ohio. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Betts returned to his position with a signed bat, which he gave Diddle.
“I just asked him for the ball," Betts said after the game. "I just told him kind of (through) sign language, I just said, 'I’ll throw you another ball, but that’s his first home run, can you throw it back?' He didn’t hesitate. He threw it right back.”
Added Friedl: “That’s just first class. It’s incredible. For him to do something like that, it’s definitely just world class out of him. I want to go over there and just say, 'Thank you' in person. Thank you is all I can really say because it means so much. Just to get that ball back, for it to be my first home run, just for him to know that and turn around to the fan.”
Friedl, an outfielder, was in his sixth minor-league season before getting promoted to the majors. At Triple-A Louisville, he was hitting .264 with a .357 on-base percentage and .422 slugging mark. He had 12 homers (among 32 extra-base hits) and 13 steals in 113 games.
A 5-foot-10, 180-pounder, Friedl walked on at Nevada in 2014, playing sparingly that season (just 37 at-bats) before being asked to redshirt in 2015 because the Wolf Pack's outfield was deep and he wasn't going to see much playing time. Nevada's starting center fielder, Cal Stevenson, transferred after the 2015 season to the junior-college level because he was going to follow coach Jay Johnson to Arizona. That prompted a national college baseball writer to tweet, “Cal Stevenson is transferring, big loss for Nevada.” That served as motivation for Friedl, who would get an opportunity to play after Stevenson's transfer.
“I screenshotted that tweet and kept it as my background over the summer,” Friedl told me in 2016. “That was my big motivation to work hard and compete every day and come back here and earn that starting role. Much respect to Cal. I love that kid. We grew up playing in the same area. I’ve known him for a long time, and he’s awesome. But I saw everybody giving him that media attention when he was leaving and I thought, ‘We have guys here still. We lost a lot of guys, but we have some players here.’ I think a lot of people underestimated us and that lit a fire under us.”
Friedl was excellent for Nevada in 2016, hitting .401 with a 1.057 OPS. He walked more times (32) than he struck out (26) and displayed excellent speed and above-average defense. Despite being draft eligible because he was three years removed from high school, Friedl went undrafted because teams only saw "sophomore" next to his name, not knowing he had redshirted a year. Friedl was invited to Team USA camp that offseason and was one of 24 players to make the American team that traveled to Taiwan, Chinese Taipei and Japan for a series of international friendlies.
That's when major-league teams realized he was draft eligible. The Cincinnati Reds, who had leftover bonus money, gave him a $735,000 signing bonus, the largest ever for a domestic non-drafted free agent and the third largest in Wolf Pack history. Friedl worked his way up through the minors and started this season at Triple-A, his first year at that level. He's a career .274 hitter in the minors with the ability to play all three outfield positions and be an asset on the base paths with his speed. Friedl's power has developed this year as he had only 20 homers in 339 minor-league games prior to this season.
Friedl, who was born in Sewickley, Penn., but grew up in Pleasanton, Calif., in the Bay Area, said his first big-league hit being a homer was a dream-like experience.
“I remembered running at third and heading home to really live in that moment and just embrace everything going on," Friedl told reporters after Sunday's game. "That’s a one-time thing. You’ll never get that back. You never get your first hit back. For that hit to be a home run, it’s so meaningful. I didn’t black out. I remember all of it. I tried to take it in as much as possible.”