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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Reds rookie Josh VanMeter, a former TinCaps player from Ossian, slides under the tag from Giants shortstop Yangervis Solarte to steal a base Sunday in his big league debut.

Monday, May 06, 2019 1:00 am

VanMeter's hard work paying off

Norwell grad called up by Reds, steals base in debut

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

In high school, Josh VanMeter honed his baseball skills in a barn.

The Ossian native and Norwell graduate spent “almost every night, year-round,” according to his father, hitting and fielding in a batting cage set up in the barn of a family friend. Those sessions with his father, in a quintessentially Indiana setting, helped VanMeter develop into one of the best high school players in the country. The San Diego Padres noticed and took the then-18-year-old in the fifth round of the 2013 draft.

That was nearly six years ago. Sunday night, VanMeter completed a long odyssey to the highest level of baseball when he stepped into the box as a Cincinnati Red for the first plate appearance of his Major League career. He joins Kevin Kiermaier, a Bishop Luers graduate, as the only active players in the big leagues from the Fort Wayne area.

VanMeter walked as a pinch hitter in his debut, and though his team lost 6-5, it was a red-letter day for the 24-year-old and his family.

“Laughter, tears, joy,” VanMeter's father, Greg VanMeter, said of his reaction Saturday when he heard his son had been promoted from Triple-A Louisville. “It's a great day, man. ... I have a lot of pride in him for the accomplishment, lot of pride for his work, perseverance, everything he put in to get to this point.”

The elder VanMeter insisted that he never had to push Josh to work at baseball. He always pushed himself, putting in plenty of work and then working some more. That trend continued this offseason, when the 5-foot-11 VanMeter tweaked his swing to try to hit the ball in the air with authority more often.

“I really focused on trying to drive the ball in the air,” VanMeter said. “I'm not too worried about striking out anymore. I just want to hit the ball in the air and I want to hit it hard.” 

VanMeter, who played 141 games with the TinCaps in 2014 and 2015 before the Padres traded him to the Reds, has always been a talented hitter, but he wasn't known for his power. Coming into the 2019 season, his career-high for home runs in his first six seasons of pro baseball was 14 in 2016.

His offseason work changed that. He did what he calls “unconventional” drills, such as hitting off a machine placed so close that it was the equivalent of hitting a 100 mph fastball, all in the hope of driving the ball in the air more regularly.

The work set the stage for VanMeter to explode at Triple-A. In the first 30 games of Louisville's season, he slugged 13 home runs, hit .346 and drove in 31 runs. On April 29, he crushed three homers and drove in eight runs. Before that performance, he had never hit three home runs in a game in his life.

“It's a funny story, three games before (the three-homer game), we were playing (the Norfolk Tides) at home and I went 5 for 6 with two home runs and I got in the clubhouse and I was like, 'Dang, I think that's the best game I've had in my life,'” VanMeter said. “Then three days later, I hit three home runs in a game with four hits and I was like, 'Dang, that's the best game I've ever had in my life.

“It's just one of those things, you go up there and try to do your job.”

By the time of his call-up Sunday, VanMeter was leading the International League in home runs, runs, RBI, slugging percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging). He joins Nick Senzel, the 2016 No. 2 overall pick, as potential impact players the Reds have added to their roster in the last week. He's the National League's problem now.

VanMeter's a long way from that barn, but he wouldn't be in Cincinnati without it.

dsinn@jg.net