Heading into 2013, David Hale was just hoping to get a chance to pitch for the Atlanta Braves.
“I wanted to put myself in a position for a September call-up since I was on the 40-man roster,” said Hale, a former Princeton University baseball standout who started the season at Gwinnett, the Braves Triple-A affiliate. “I improved on my command and developed a sinker.”
After going 6-9 with a 3.22 ERA at Gwinnett, Hale got the call and made his first major league outing for the Braves on September 13, pitching five innings and recording nine strikeouts, breaking the franchise record for strikeouts in a debut.
Hale made another regular season appearance and also pitched for the Braves in the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Now as Hale enters 2014, he is determined to spend the whole season with the Braves.
“I am looking to keep up everything I do,” said Hale, a 2011 Princeton alum who recently returned to his alma mater along with fellow Tiger major leaguers Ross Ohlendorf ’05, Will Venable ’05, and Chris Young ’02 for the Jake McCandless ’51 Princeton Varsity Club Speaker Series.
“I want to stay in shape and keep my pitches sharp. I need to keep the sinker sharp, it is a new pitch to me. I am happy to see that my stuff can work at the major league level.”
As he wrapped up his season at Gwinnett, Hale wasn’t sure that he was going to get the chance for a shot at the next level.
“The season ended and they told me I wasn’t going to get called up,” said Hale, 26, a 6’2, 205-pound native of Marietta, Ga. who was taken in the third round of the 2009 MLB draft by the Braves.
“Then 24 hours later, they told me I was getting called up. I ran the whole gamut of emotions. I couldn’t wait to call my dad and mom.”
As he made his debut against the visiting San Diego Padres on September 13, hometown hero Hale had some extra support on hand.
“Being from Atlanta and being lucky enough to put on the Braves uniform, there were so many people there to watch me,” said Hale.
“There were teachers from high school, people I hadn’t talked to for years. I think there were 200-300 people there. It added to my nerves. I told myself to not look in the stands but of course I did immediately. As I got on the mound, those feelings went away.”
Overcoming those nerves, Hale proceeded to strike out nine in five innings of work to set the team record for most Ks in a first outing. He also added a footnote to Princeton baseball history as he faced fellow Tiger and Padres star Venable.
“He is the only Princeton hitter in the major leagues at the moment, it was unbelievable to be going against him,” said Hale. “I didn’t even realize that I had set a record, I was just relieved to get that one under my belt.”
After earning his first big league win as he struck out five in six innings in a 7-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on September 26, Hale thought his work for the season was done as the Braves girded for the playoffs. But like earlier in the month, he got a pleasant surprise.
“I was pretty positive that I was not going to be on the playoff roster,” said Hale, who went 1-0 overall with 14 strikeouts and a 0.82 ERA in 11 innings of work in the regular season.
“I thought they were kidding when they told me. They needed a long reliever and I was able to fill that role. I was really happy but I had to be reserved because there were some good players and older guys who didn’t make the roster.”
As the Braves lost the NLDS 3-1 to the Dodgers, Hale did see action in Game 3, facing a batter in the eighth inning and getting a groundout in a 13-6 loss.
“That was pretty cool; it was great to pitch in such a historic place,” said Hale. “I ended the year well; I am bringing confidence into the offseason.”
For Hale, it was cool to come back to Princeton in December. “It is nice to be here on campus and not have any school work,” said Hale. “I can see guys who don’t have problem sets to do. The place is fantastic.”
Playing baseball at Princeton was a key step in Hale’s path to the majors. “From a baseball standpoint, coach [Scott] Bradley was a professional coach,” said Hale, who played three seasons at Princeton from 2007-09, going 7-9 on the mound with a 4.74 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 127.1 innings pitched and batted .291 with 7 homers and 46 RBIs.
“He stayed out of your business and knew you would do your work. I was pretty much a baby pitcher at the time; I was learning the role of pitcher. I was also a hitter/infielder.”
During his time at Princeton, Hale developed on and off the field. “There is no better way to test your limits than to be playing a sport and doing the academics at a school like Princeton,” said Hale.
In 2014, Hale will be applying those lessons as he looks to succeed at the highest level of his sport.