With just three games to go before the Northwest League’s first two playoff teams were decided, the Eugene Emeralds were in trouble Saturday night. Mired in a rut that saw them lose eight out of 10 games, the Emeralds seemed to have squandered another opportunity for a win, seemingly wasting a six-inning, 10-strikeout performance from starting pitcher John Barbato as they were in a 1-1 tie against the Vancouver Canadians, a team tied with the Emeralds for first place in the NWL’s West Division.
Then, Emeralds shortstop Jace Peterson came to bat.
Peterson rolled a grounder to Canadians third baseman Balbino Fuenmayor and sprinted to first base, forcing a high throw that momentarily pulled Canadians first baseman Randy Schwartz off the bag, just long enough for Peterson to reach safely.
During the next at-bat, Peterson took off to steal second base and narrowly slid in under the tag of Vancouver second baseman Jon Berti.
On a shallow two-out single to center field by Emeralds first baseman Zach Kometani, Peterson dashed home, barely sliding into the plate around the tag of Canadians catcher Chris Schaeffer, giving Eugene a 2-1 lead and eventually a one-game lead over Vancouver in the standings with two games to go.
“He won the game for us with a stolen base nobody else on the team could get — it was bang-bang,” first-year Emeralds manager Pat Murphy says. “Nobody else could get that stolen base and nobody else could score from second on that hit. That’s who he is.”
A former two-sport athlete at McNeese State, Peterson’s game-changing raw athleticism is his best tool, according to Murphy, hitting coach Chris Prieto and college teammate Lee Orr, the Emeralds’ right fielder.
“He’s one of the best athletes that I’ve been around and he has all the tools to be successful,” Orr says. “He grinds out every day, whether he’s feeling good or feeling bad.”
Apart from being a two-time All-Southland Conference shortstop and a Southland Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year, Peterson was a cornerback for the Cowboys, registering a sack and forcing a fumble from LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson in his school’s 32-10 loss to the Tigers. (His words of advice for Oregon’s season-opening game against LSU: “Good luck.”)
Now that he’s only hitting baseballs and not quarterbacks, Peterson thinks he’ll be able to rapidly adjust to the sport.
“I never really got to focus on one sport, but it’s not really a problem because you’re still competing half of the year in something else,” says Peterson, a 2011 supplemental first-round pick of the San Diego Padres. “When you get the chance to focus on one thing, I would think it would be easier to excel in that sport.”
Murphy says Peterson’s football career has had both positive and a negative effects on his development.
“He has that football mentality, which can be very helpful or very hurtful, but I think he’s going to err on the side of making it more helpful for him,” Murphy says. “He’s a great competitor; he just hasn’t had this much baseball before.”
Peterson is excited to commit to playing on the diamond full-time because it will help him improve his self-acknowledged biggest weakness: “Lack of repetition.”
Murphy says that despite what would seem to be a lackluster start to Peterson’s career at the plate, the increase in playing time will serve him well. The Emeralds’ shortstop is batting .213 this season with a .325 on-base percentage and a .305 slugging percentage. However, Peterson has a batting average on balls in play of .276, which should likely be much higher, given his speed. This represents a lack of balls finding holes, meaning that his hits are likely to increase as the season goes on.
“He’s probably had more at-bats here than in his last eight years of baseball, real at-bats,” Murphy says. “He’s scuffling a little bit, but he helped us win.”
Prieto believes Peterson’s physical gifts will help him overcome his early struggles and bad luck.
“He’s got raw ability at the plate. He’s got a lot of overall athleticism, something that you like to see. Now it’s just a matter of getting those mechanics to work with that athleticism,” Prieto says. “Hitting’s tough and it takes a little time, and with his hard work, he’s just going to keep getting better every year.”
Peterson’s hard work stems from his competitive drive.
“I like to grind. I like to do what I can to compete,” Peterson says. “I don’t like losing, so definitely I’d like to be known as a player who competes every time he’s on the field.”
Peterson’s coaches heaped praise on his personality, work ethic and motivation.
“I think he’s a hard-nosed, tough kid, comes ready to play every day,” Prieto says. “He’s anxious to get better, he understands his weaknesses, and he’s just a great overall kid.”
Murphy says Peterson is the kind of person he would want his daughter to be around.
“He’s a beautiful, beautiful kid,” Murphy says. “You’d never know where he was drafted; you’d never know his talent.”
For Orr, Peterson is more than a teammate — he’s one of his best friends. Both have said their transition to professional baseball has been made easier by having a teammate there with them.
“It’s 10 times better when you have somebody to lean on that you already know coming into it,” Peterson says.
The pair are also roommates, which they use to their advantage, win or lose.
“Having one of your best friends that you’ve known for the last four years, having him there just to relax and kind of forget about it for a couple hours every night, it just makes it easier to move on from bad games,” Orr says. “Whenever everything’s going good, it keeps it going a little bit longer.”
Although Orr knows Peterson well, what he said he knew best is this: “Whenever I step on the field with him, I’ve got a good chance of winning with him.”