CINCINNATI – A three-game series in Cincinnati for the Chicago White Sox came with mixed emotions for Nate Jones.
The Pendleton County native was able to join his club as they take on the Reds, who he grew up watching, but he has been on the disabled list since June 13 and is unable to pitch in the series.
“It’s a pretty awesome experience. We grew up coming to these games. When you’re an honor roll student, you get tickets to these games so you get started out young. It was pretty awesome to be able to step out onto the field and be a part of the team here that’s visiting,” said Jones after Monday’s series opener, a 5-3 Cincinnati win. “It’s unfortunate for all the family and friends that are here, but they still showed up and showed their support. I wasn’t able to be a part of the game and we weren’t able to pull it off for them tonight, but tomorrow’s another game.”
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound right-handed pitcher has been sidelined with a forearm injury since being pulled in the ninth inning of a June 12 game against Cleveland. He had an MRI that showed no structural damage, which was good news for a pitcher who was shut down in May last season. He was also out most of the 2014 season due to injuries.
He was going to miss some time, however, and that ended up including the series in Cincinnati.
“When it first happened, all I could think about was how bad it hurt. As the days went on, I started to think about this series, if I was going to get back in time or not, but unfortunately I didn’t,” said Jones. “That’s part of baseball. I’m just looking to get back healthy and not rush anything.”
Jones threw his first flat-ground bullpen session since the injury on Monday and is hoping to be throwing from the mound in a few days. The 32-year-old has a 2.55 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 27 appearances this season.
Since he’s not yet able to pitch, he was unable to help Chicago’s bullpen in Monday’s contest, which featured a four-run rally from the Reds in the bottom of the eighth inning, after Chicago took a 2-1 lead in the seventh and added an insurance run the next inning.
“At some points it is tough to watch, but I have to accept where I’m at. I’m on the DL. All I can do now is be the best teammate I can,” said Jones. “I’m out there picking guys up, cheering guys on, things like that. I’m helping out any way that I can just to be a part of the team and be an asset.”
But still, for the kid born in Butler, Kentucky and raised in rural Pendleton County, just being on the home field of the Cincinnati Reds was an experience he didn’t believe would happen.
“When you’re young and coming to these games, you look at these guys and you put them on a different level – the athletes that they are and were – but never did I ever compare myself to that because as a small kid you’re thinking, ‘The big leagues,’” said Jones. “It’s a pretty awesome and surreal feeling being able to be here in this clubhouse and on that field, for sure.”
He graduated from Pendleton County in 2004 and has since had his number 25 jersey retired by the school. The 2004 Wildcats, coached by Murph Howard, saw the season come to a close at 18-14 with a 3-0 loss to eventual 10th Region Tournament champion Harrison County.
Jones continued his baseball career at Northern Kentucky University. He posted a 2.88 ERA in 16 appearances as a junior, recording 60 strikeouts and holding opponents to a .185 batting average.
He was selected by the White Sox in the fifth round of the 2007 MLB Draft, making him the 15th player drafted out of NKU. After stops in the minor league with the Bristol White Sox, the Kannapolis Intimidators, the Winston-Salem Warthogs and the Birmingham Barons, Jones made Chicago’s 25-man roster out of spring training in 2012.
Jones made his major league debut against the Texas Rangers on April 8, 2012. He came in for the bottom of the seventh, walked the first two batters he faced, then retired the next three. The last batter he faced was 2010 American League MVP Josh Hamilton. He struck him out.
In his MLB career, Jones has posted a 22-12 record with a 3.07 ERA in 265 appearances out of the bullpen. He’s struck out 303 batters in 275.2 innings pitched and recorded seven saves – four of which have come in 2018.
Jones made the United States roster for the World Baseball Classic – an event held every four years – in 2017. He appeared in four games and struck out three batters to help the U.S. team to the championship trophy.
And despite all of his accomplishments, he still doesn’t consider himself to be on the same level as some of the players he grew up watching in Cincinnati.
“I’ve still got a ways to go,” said Jones. “I’m just fortunate enough to have been playing as long as I have and hopefully I’ll get to play a few more years after this. I’m just fortunate and blessed with everything that’s come my way.”
On Monday, instead of watching from the stands like he did growing up, Jones was chasing fly balls during batting practice in center field – he hasn’t been in the league long enough to earn a spot closer to the team’s dugout – and was taking in the game with his team.
He returns to his home in Pendleton County during the offseason, where he says he doesn’t get out much, but instead prefers to spend time with loved ones and maybe take in one of the Wildcats’ games against rival Bracken County.
He’s able to get back to Falmouth to sleep in his own bed, which he says, “does a lot for your soul,” while the White Sox are in town and was able to visit with family and friends in the seats by the team’s bullpen before Monday’s game.
Jones, who’s been gone since spring training in February, was happy to catch up with familiar faces and was grateful for the support from Pendleton County’s White Sox fans, even though he isn’t able to take the mound while he’s in Cincinnati.
“I know it’s kind of disappointing that I won’t get to pitch this series, but just to all the family and friends that showed up and showed their support – it doesn’t go unnoticed,” said Jones. “I appreciate everything that everybody has done for me.”