(Photo via Nate Orf’s Twitter, seen here)
For the Milwaukee Brewers a lot of unpredictability has occurred to launch the club into contention. It’s been a near-perfect year out of the bullpen for young lefty Josh Hader, or a sudden power surge for first baseman Jesus Aguilar, coupled with solid seasons from veterans that have the Brewers in first place in the NL Center. But something happened last Wednesday that was possibly the most unpredictable even for the Brewers season yet. In the seventh inning of a time game against Minnestoa, rookie second baseman Nate Orf strode to the plate for only his eighth MLB plate appearance. On a 2-2 count against Jose Berrios, Orf homered down the left field line for his first major league hit, which made the difference in Milwaukee’s 3-2 win.
Orf’s long journey to his debut at Miller Park really began in the Northwoods League, a wood bat collegiate summer league located throughout the Midwest. Orf, playing for Illionois-Chicago, was with the Eau Claire Express in August 2010 and teammates with a few Baylor Bears. According to Smith, Orf put in a call to the Baylor staff and transferred just a few days before fall classes began in Waco.
“I didn’t know who he was and never saw him play,” Smith said when discussing Orf’s non-recruitment to Baylor. “I called his teammates [with Eau Claire], and looked up his stats at Illinois-Chicago, and that’s how it all started.”
Smith initially thought Orf was a graduate transfer and planned to play for Baylor immediately. But Orf actually wanted to pursue a specific major at Baylor (he pursed a major in Religion, according to his player profile on the Baylor site) and sat out the 2011 season per NCAA transfer rules. Even though he didn’t play that year, Smith knew early on what kind of player Orf would be on and off the field.
“It didn’t take long to see what kind of guy he was. It was more about how he went about everything than what he was able to do,” Smith said. Smith recalled a time during that 2011 season when he was frustrated with his team and needed to rely on a leader on the field. Though Orf wasn’t a captain at the time, Smith stopped practice, pulled the team together and told them “Nate was going to be our captain next year” even though he hadn’t played an inning for Baylor yet.
Smith recalled Orf’s Baylor career as one of versatility, patience, and scrappiness. He caught at Illinois-Chicago, spent most of his junior year in Waco as the team’s designated hitter due to an elbow injury, then spent most of his senior year in right field. Smith said during his junior season, he was hit by a pitch more times than he struck out in the leadoff spot. Smith, who was in the Atlanta area watching a high school showcase during this phone interview also said Orf is the guy every coach is out there looking for. “He’s just that hard-nosed guy that wants to win and will do whatever it takes to win.”
Another story during Orf’s time at Baylor centered on an interaction with national league breakout star Max Muncy, a Baylor grad who’s enjoying a career year with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The encounter began during an early morning workout in Waco in 2010, Orf’s first year on campus when he was not eligible to play. “At some point, Nate let Muncy know he didn’t like his effort, which almost led to an altercation on the practice field,” Smith said. “It’s really something that the two guys who almost fought on the practice field eight years ago are the only two from that team still playing”.
Orf finished his Baylor career with sparkling numbers – little power, but tons of experience playing multiple positions and a career .342 average with a .462 on-base percentage. Despite that success, he went undrafted in 2013 but quickly caught on with Milwaukee as an undrafted free agent for a $500 signing bonus. “It didn’t take long before he had some workouts lined up with teams,” Smith said of Orf’s post-draft strategy. “A lot of scouts in the area had seen him, and even though he didn’t grade out high no one had any issue putting their name on him. He’s made the Brewers extremely proud”. Smith attributes Orf’s perseverance through seven seasons of minor league ball across four different affiliates, from Helena to Colorado Springs, to his passion for the game. “Nate doesn’t press, and baseball isn’t a life or death game for him,” Smith said. “He just loves playing, and probably can’t hardly believe that someone is paying him to play.”
Orf has turned that $500 bonus in 2013 to a MLB salary over $500,000 with his recent promotion from Triple-A Colorado Springs, as well as a curtain call from the Miller Park crowd after his homer of Berrios. Though the staying power for an unheralded rookie is light, Orf will continue to earn a spot on a crowded Brewers roster with his defensive versatility and on-base skills. Even just last week, he was shuttled to and from Triple-A again. “He’s just a baseball junkie, and even though very few of those guys get to the big leagues, there’s a reason why fans love him”, Smith said. “He’s the same player now that he was for us in how he goes about the game”.