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Chula Vista’s Natal On the Verge of Making the Major Leagues

For almost five seasons, Bob Natal carved a nice little niche for himself behind home plate in the Montreal Expo system. Playing behind guys who were drafted higher or considered prospects, Natal made himself useful as a hard-hustling, light-hitting, defensively sound reserve.

He was an insurance policy in shin guards, never a strong candidate for a big-league promotion.

From Class A West Palm Beach (Fla.) to Class AA Jacksonville (Fla.), back to West Palm Beach and up to Jacksonville again, then on to double-A Harrisburg (Pa.), Natal, a Chula Vista native, made five stops in four years, carrying a .215 batting average.

But as any good organization will do for a good company man, the Expos promoted Natal, sending him to triple-A Indianapolis in late 1991. There Natal joined forces with hitting coach Gomer Hodge--who hit .205 in 80 games for the Cleveland Indians in 1971 and was never heard from again.

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Hodge, who hails from Rutherfordton, N.C., gave Natal a good old country lecture and a few old-fashioned hitting tips. The message on both fronts: Relax.

Natal batted .317 in 16 games. It’s now more than 50 games into the 1992 season, and Natal is proving his hot August last season was no fluke. He is hitting .335, tops among regulars, with six home runs, eight doubles and 29 RBIs.

He’s no longer the back-up catcher.

The last-place Expos (27-33) are employing veterans Gary Carter and Rick Cerone. They might have to consider taking Natal, 26, out of the insurance business and bringing him to Olympic Stadium.

“Gosh, I’m just a hittin’ guy,” Hodge said. “But I’d say Natal’s going to get a chance to go up there and catch quite a bit sometime this season.

“He’s a spastic type of kid, sort of energetic. He wouldn’t sit still when he got here. But then he wasn’t playing that much and he may have been too anxious.”

Natal, who hit a school-record .465 his senior year at UC San Diego and .322 his first year in the minors, has re-established himself not only as a hitter but a catcher who can run. He has three triples this season. In four seasons at UCSD, Natal was 36 for 40 in stolen-base attempts.

Natal, who played high school ball at Hilltop and was probably the best player in UCSD history, said he’s gained confidence at the plate. Which is a bad thing for the opposition. In his 1987 senior year with the Tritons, Natal set school records for hits (74), RBIs (67), home runs (18) and runs (50) against mostly Division I and II pitching. He holds career marks that may never be broken: .368 average, 53 homers, 257 hits and 208 RBIs in 200 games.

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Natal, 5 feet 11 and 190 pounds, said laying off the high fastball and becoming more disciplined has led to the offensive turnaround, which started at Harrisburg last season. He had 13 homers, 16 doubles and 33 RBIs while batting .256.

If the parent Expos don’t call his number, another big-league team probably will before the 1993 expansion season.

“I like where I am right now,” said Natal, who was drafted in the 13th round in 1987. “But I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get called up. I know there’s a lot of clubs that could use a catcher that can hit and play good defense.

“I believe I have (surprised the Expos). I’ve always been sort of an insurance policy for them. If somebody’s not playing well or gets hurt, that’s when I would play.”

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Hodge has become a big Natal fan and sees a lot of himself in the kid.

“Back when I was playing, we never thought about the money,” Hodge said. “I made the minimum when I was in the bigs: $13,500. We went out on the ball field and had fun. When Natal hits the ball field, dad gum, he has fun.

“He’s not the kind of guy that says, ‘Why haven’t I been called up?’ He’s turned himself into a prospect with hard work.”

Clouds in Carolina: Bad weather, bad luck, inconsistency and a whole lot of tension. Pitcher Sean Rees says he’s experiencing it all at Class-A Peninsula of the Carolina League. But Rees, who was the San Diego Section Player of the Year at Mission Bay High in 1988, has put up decent statistics despite a 4-6 record in 13 starts so far.

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“I have a tendency to read into stuff too much,” he said. “I’ve been down on myself. Stuff’s just getting into my head a lot and I start pressing.”

Rees has a 3.31 earned-run average and has struck out 74 and walked only 27 in 73 1/3 innings. But he says he’s still pressing, because rough stints in the fall instructional league and spring training caused the parent Seattle Mariners to keep him in single-A rather than promote him to double-A as they had planned.

“Sometimes he’s off, sometimes he’s on,” Peninsula pitching coach Paul Lindblad said. “It’s just a matter of being consistent, and we’ve all struggled with that. He’s doing fine.”

Said Rees, who was optimistic Tuesday when he found a kink in his motion, “It’s frustrating because I know I can do better.”

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Play ball, son: Vista High’s Aaron Rounsifer might have gone against conventional advice by signing a pro contract with the Boston Red Sox and giving up his scholarship to Cal State Fullerton last week. Rounsifer, coming off a season in which he batted .488 with 33 RBIs for the Panthers, wasn’t picked until the 11th round.

Yet it was his parents who convinced him to sign for a $75,000 bonus, suggesting he might adjust to the rigors of pro baseball better than he would college academics at this stage.


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