Wherever, Whenever


f you were to clone Boston College baseball’s Jake Alu and Jacob Yish to create a team of equally experienced players, the roster would cover every position except first base, the only position that the two haven’t spent time at since their senior year of high school.

Yish can catch and play the outfield—he was recruited as a catcher, played center field in high school, and now plays the corner outfield positions. Alu, meanwhile, is gearing up to play both third base and left field this season, as well as boasting plenty of experience up the middle, in addition to time on the mound.

Put simply, BC head coach Mike Gambino has plenty of options between the two. He also has the benefit of both players coming off breakout seasons. For Alu, it was his first full year after watching from the bench as a freshman, while Yish earned plenty of playing time, thriving in his first year on the Heights.

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n basketball, a guard can potentially play at small forward, but would never battle it out in the frontcourt. In hockey, defensemen and forwards skate up and down the ice together, but when it comes down to it, they have clearly defined roles. In soccer, a forward doesn’t have the same stamina as a midfielder, or comparable awareness within the 18-yard box as a defender.

In baseball, though, great teams are often defined by a utility player. Versatility can be a blessing to a manager, especially as seasons drag on and players slump or need breaks. Just ask Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch if having Marwin Gonzalez—who played every position except center field and catcher last season—helped the team win Major League Baseball’s World Series.

For the Eagles, Alu serves that role.

“Whatever role the team needs, he does it,” Gambino said. “Jake Alu is in the lineup every day. Most guys who are in the lineup every day don’t have to check that they’re in the lineup every day.

“He has to check the lineup every day because he has to check to see what glove he needs to grab.”

Last season, Alu played in 48 games, starting in 45 of them. After failing to win the second baseman starting job over Jake Palomaki, he moved around constantly, playing second base, shortstop, left field, designated hitter, and serving as a reliever. Having not started a game as a freshman, any playing time was welcome.

“[Gambino] said the only way you’re getting on the field is if you be that versatile guy, the guy who can go in anywhere and give us help wherever we need it,” Alu said. “That’s how I was going to get in the lineup.”

Moving around was nothing new for the junior. His pure desire to be in the game has long outweighed picking and choosing positions, dating all the way back to Little League. Alu has always hated sitting, so much so that when his loaded Little League team was cruising to big wins, he wouldn’t come off the field—instead picking the place that nobody would run to, and taking it as his own.

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That pure desire to be in for every pitch, regardless of position, stuck with him as his baseball career continued. Despite being an everyday shortstop for four years at Princeton Day School in New Jersey, he showcased his versatility on the travel team circuit under the watchful eye of former Major Leaguer Dave Gallagher. Gallagher, who spent nine years bouncing around the pros, playing all three outfield positions, saw a high schooler who could make his coaching job easier.

“He has attributes that lend him to have success from a lot of different places on the field,” Gallagher said. “That versatility allows the head coach to get more guys into the lineup to help the team win. They can get into the game if you have one guy to bounce around. It’s a huge asset to help the team.”

Regardless of the position he plays, Alu has the same demeanor—brash but calculated—and it shines through in his personality on a daily basis.

The junior, from Hamilton, N.J., relished in the Philadelphia Eagles triumph over the hometown Patriots in this past Super Bowl. Rest assured that Alu, who has spent the past few weeks walking through campus with a Super Bowl champions flat brim hat, didn’t back down when the majority of his teammates were rooting against him.

“I kind of love it,” Alu said of wearing the hat around campus, a trademark grin stealing across his face. “Obviously it would’ve been nice to be in Philly, but it’s good to get the dirty looks walking around it.”

Utility guys are usually not the flashiest players in baseball. Alu, however, quickly flipped the script by establishing himself as one of the more dangerous hitters in the Eagle’s lineup. Learning from watching the likes of Johnny Adams as a freshman, Alu brought a smart offensive approach and a short, quick swing that served him well. His batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage stat line of .331/.386/.384 was stellar as a sophomore—the average was tops on the team, ahead of future MLB draftees in Adams and Donovan Casey. He hit as high as .342 in conference play, good enough for eighth in the ACC.

Part of the success he had can be attributed to the mentality he brings to the plate.

“I don’t like pitchers, I never have,” Alu said, a cocky but measured tone coming through. “Seeing those guys with big names across their chests and the top prospects you hear about all over. You get a hit off those guys, and it’s something you have the rest of your life—but it’s also like, how good are they?

“I love being one-on-one against somebody else and seeing who gets the better.”

Alu pieced together a nine-game hitting streak near the end of the season, hitting well when it was needed most, which didn’t surprise Gallagher. The oft-revered clutchness runs in his veins, it seems.

“He plays in tight spots as if he’s playing in a pickup softball game with his friends,” the MLB veteran said on the indescribable quality. “The game comes to him very relaxed. He doesn’t tense up, and that’s a huge quality that he brings.”

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round the same time Alu was breaking out, Yish was coming into his own—despite being two years younger. Described by Gambino as a freshman who “didn’t know that freshman aren’t supposed to come in here and hit .300,” Yish’s strength isn’t necessarily his ability to play all three outfield spots and catch—if needed—it’s his approach at the plate that draws the highest praise.

Described in an early recruiting report as a player with “above-average speed on the base path and a big, open-stance swing that generates a lot of power, the ceiling is projected high,” Yish has shown what the ceiling looks like.

Like Alu, he elevated his game when it was needed most. In conference play, the freshman finished third on the team with an average just four points shy of .300, a more-than respectable mark that earned plenty of attention from Gambino and the BC coaching staff.

“The kid can just swing,” the Eagles coach said, admirably. “His at-bats last year as a freshman didn’t look like freshman at-bats.”

It didn’t come as a surprise to Yish’s coach in high school, Dan Letarte of St. John’s Prep in nearby Danvers, Mass. Letarte saw him come up big, time and time again, a crucial piece of the team’s run to back-to-back Super Eight finals, Massachusetts’s eight-team, double-elimination tournament for the top schools in the state.

When he first saw Yish, he was playing catcher. He quickly moved to outfield and flourished there, where Letarte described him as a smart player who made all the right reads and helped carry his team. Yish took over the center field starting spot for St. John’s, and didn’t relinquish it.

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Meanwhile, he was sorting out what he wanted to do with his collegiate career. After all, he was a two-year starter at safety on the football team—showcasing his speed, range, and defensive skills in the fall and spring.

One highlight from his career on the gridiron was an interception and a fumble recovery in his final high school game, a 14-0 loss at Fenway Park to rival Xaverian Brothers the day before Thanksgiving. The stellar play drew high praise from head coach Brian St. Pierre afterward. It was fitting, then, that just a year later, he was going 2-for-4 with a pair of RBIs in an 8-3 win over North Carolina State in the historic ballpark—some things just never change.

Eventually, choosing between the sports that he’d started playing from age 7 reached its culmination—and he committed to play baseball for BC.

His move to outfield was influenced by the need to have a better chance to get into the Eagles lineup, per Letarte. With three outfield spots, Yish had the bat to be in the lineup every day, but would benefit from more than one shot as a catcher. Now, Gambino can use him in either of the corner spots or opt to use him as a designated hitter.

“There’s three sticks in the lineup in outfield in college, and he needed to develop reps there,” Letarte said of the change. “He was already a good catcher. For us, he patrolled center field for three seasons, and was very coachable and a great teammate.”

Described by Letarte as a three-tool player, the “hitting tool” was more than on display in his debut season at BC. Yish credited the success to just trying to do everything he could as he sought to find a role on the team, and find it he has. To keep it up this season, don’t expect the approach of somebody who’s already been around the block.

“I just have to keep working hard and focus on the little things,” Yish said. “If I get ahead of myself and try to better last year, that’s when things start to fall into a slump.”

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n the season opener against Santa Clara, Alu started in left while Yish was the designated hitter. The next day, Alu was at third and Yish entered later in as a pinch-hitter. Two games later, Yish started in left field.

For BC fans, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see Alu’s familiar No. 1 bouncing around the field. You might see him start at third and end up in left, or enter late as a reliever, or even spend a few innings at his favorite middle infield position.

It’s likely to be more of the same for Yish, as the sophomore will probably also bounce around. If his bat begins to heat up like last season, though, he’ll find a way to consistently be in the lineup.

Either way, Gambino is dealing with an embarrassment of riches—two players capable of playing multiple positions, both coming off strong campaigns, ready to make the most of whatever opportunities they get. Like Alu stressed many times, playing for the Eagles is simply about being the guy that goes to the spot where they need the help.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Senior Staff
Photos by Julia Hopkins and Jake Catania / Heights Staff 

Bradley Smart

Bradley is the associate sports editor for The Heights. He believes that America does truly run on Dunkin, March is the best month, baseball teams should always wear stirrups, and being down 3-1, in anything, is never cause for concern. You can follow him on Twitter @bradleysmart15.

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