For the last eight seasons, relief pitcher Nate Jones made his home with the Chicago White Sox.
“He was always the eighth-inning guy," said Northern Kentucky University baseball coach Todd Asalon, who coached Jones through college. "He did a great job, and then injuries would break down for him. It really hurt because you want to see the guy be as successful as he can be.”
Jones was 22-13 with a 3.12 ERA and 318 strikeouts in 284 career games. His 2019 season ended after only 13 games because of a torn flexor mass muscle in the forearm.
It was the latest in a series of injuries for Jones, who endured a left hip muscle strain that cost him most of 2014, right elbow surgery in 2015 and right elbow neuritis that sidelined him for most of 2017.
After last season, Jones became a free agent for the first time in his career. He signed a Minor League contract with the Reds in January, hoping to fulfill a childhood dream of playing on the big league team.
“Once the Reds started showing interest, I was like, alright, let’s zero in on them,” Jones said. "I was a Reds fan growing up and got to go out to the stadium a few times when we got perfect attendance.”
Jones grew up in Pendleton County, Kentucky, 34 miles away from Great American Ball Park. He still keeps a residence in Butler, Kentucky.
“That is home," Jones said. "My wife and I both grew up there. We graduated together and both sides of our families are from there.”
A dirt road behind Pendleton County High School leads to a field — Jones' first baseball home.
“I remember my senior year, there was scouts starting to show up, and we’re like, 'Who the heck are they here for?' and the coach is like, 'You, dummy,'” Jones said.
Jones went on to pitch at Northern Kentucky and was inducted into the NKU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2019. The walls in Coach Asalon’s office show notable Norse baseball alumni, with a picture of Jones in the middle.
“By 2007, his junior year, he was the best pitcher in the conference by far," Asalon said. "He was up to 96 miles an hour and really learned how to throw strikes and command the zone.”
Now done with his latest rehab stint and an inning of Spring Training action under his belt, Jones is in command of his health.
“I feel like I’m on top of my game and can still perform,” Jones said.
Asalon looks forward to the possibility of seeing Jones pitch in person again.
“Talent-wise, he’s off the charts, and all the spin rates and the velocity and all that is off the charts for him," Asalon said. "He's just gotta stay healthy, and I think he could be a really great asset to that bullpen.”
Jones is eager to earn a role in the Reds bullpen this season.
“That would be an honor, that would be pretty awesome,” Jones said. “That would be pretty cool for everybody back home to see.”