By Matt Williams
---- — Baseball is a game of routine and rhythm.
Summing up Matt Antonelli’s 2012 season comes best through a musical analogy: He never quite picked up the beat.
Antonelli, still regarded as one of the best athletes to ever graduate from St. John’s Prep, played in just 44 games this summer, split between the Triple-A affiliates of Baltimore and the New York Yankees.
Instead of ending the season battling opposing pitchers, he found himself battling illness at his Georgetown home.
It all came down to that rhythm, disrupted first by winter injury that limited his offseason hitting routine. With sporadic playing time at Triple-A Norfolk, Va. in the Orioles’ system, Antonelli couldn’t straighten things out. His body just wasn’t keeping time at the same pace as baseball’s metronome.
“It was a weird year,” the 27-year-old Antonelli said. “There was no flow to it. It was the kind of year you just want to bury and forget about.”
Antonelli grew up in Peabody and was a football, hockey and baseball star at the Prep. He went on to graduate from Wake Forest and was a first round pick of the San Diego Padres in 2006.
After moving on to the Washington Nationals organization for 2011, Antonelli enjoyed an all-star season at Triple-A Syracuse. Last winter, he signed a deal with Baltimore that gave him a spot on the big league team’s 40-man roster. Things were finally coming together leading into his seventh professional season.
But a spot with the Orioles wasn’t meant to be in spring training, and the Birds designated Antonelli for assignment in May. He was claimed by the Yankees a few days later and assigned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but played his last game for the organization in late July.
Antonelli traces his struggles back to last winter. Soreness in his wrist (the opposite wrist from that one that caused him to miss the 2010 season) limited his time in the batting cage.
“As the season went on, I realized not hitting in the offseason really affected me,” said Antonelli. “I just never felt comfortable. I felt like in the spring I had a good chance to make the team (in Baltimore), then I got to Triple-A and it was play a few days, sit for a few days. It was strange.”
Excited for ex-teammates
Antonelli’s last three organizations are gearing up for Major League Baseball’s postseason. Both the Yankees and the Orioles have clinched playoff spots and are still battling for the American League East title, while Washington has clinched the National League East crown.
The biggest surprise of the bunch is certainly Baltimore, which is in the midst of its first winning season since 1997.
“In the spring you could see that the team had talent. Hanging out with the offensive guys, I was impressed with how good offensively the team was,” Antonelli recalled. “Guys like Adam Jones, Matt Wieters ... I got a real appreciation for how good they were.
“The thing you always heard about Baltimore was about not knowing if they had the pitching, but I was impressed with what I saw. They had a lot of young guys with great arms. I don’t know if I would’ve predicted they’d be this good, but they had the pieces.”
Going back to his 2010 spring training with San Diego, Antonelli has spent the spring with winning ballclubs just about every season. That year, the Padres led the National League West most of the year before losing it in September.
He may wonder what it would be like to be in the postseason with those teams, but Antonelli isn’t the type of athlete that broods over what might have been.
“I’ve been lucky to be in spring training with some talented teams. They all kind of remind me of each other in that expectations weren’t super high, but they had great seasons,” he said.
“For me, I’m excited for those guys. I’m more worried about myself — and I don’t think about what could’ve happened.”
Because his Baltimore deal placed him on the 40-man roster, Antonelli had to pass through waivers when the Orioles designated him for assignment in May. The Yankees picked him up and assigned him to their Triple-A team, a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre team that didn’t have a home because they were renovating their stadium.
Living in a hotel the entire season and playing home games in Pawtucket and Buffalo wasn’t ideal, but Antonelli learned a lot in his months with the Yankees.
“They run things a little differently. There are a lot more rules and they’re more strict, but everyone bought into it,” said Antonelli. “I really enjoyed myself there. It’s a first class organization.”
Antonelli said the Yankees had one of the best Triple-A team’s he’d ever played on. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre went on to lose to Pawtucket in the International League playoffs.
Gearing up for 2013
For his part, Antonelli appeared in 15 games with the Yankees, hitting .197 with a homer and four RBI. In Norfolk, he hit .204 in 29 games with a homer and seven RBI. His on-base percentage in Norfolk was .357, showing patience and demonstrating that he likely would’ve found his swing given enough at-bats.
“I haven’t looked at the stats at all,” said Antonelli, who had interest from a few teams after being released with the Yankees. A late summer illness and changing plans around the league prevented that.
Looking to next year, his eighth as a pro, Antonelli is preparing for spring training. He’s working out in the gym and the batting cage; he’s fully committed to returning to his 2011 form and adding to his 21-career big league games with San Diego in 2008.
“I can’t talk with teams until November,” he said. “Its going to be a different kind of year for me, being a little older and coming off a year where I moved around a bit and didn’t play as much. I’m hoping someone gives me a chance.”