BURLINGTON, N.C. – Nolan Watson was winding down in the Burlington Royals dugout after his professional debut Wednesday night and trying to draw the attention of one of his teammates.
But feedback from Ashe Russell, who had made his debut in the home opener two nights earlier, would have to wait. He was in the second row of the grandstand, charting pitches.
“I was down there making motions at him trying to get his attention, but I couldn’t,” Watson said.
Rest assured, the 18-year-olds from Indianapolis will have ample opportunities to dissect each other’s performances this summer, and perhaps well beyond.
They’re first-round draftees of the Kansas City Royals, assigned to the Appalachian League’s only team based in North Carolina.
In many ways, they’re in this together. Just a few weeks ago, their teams were rivals in the high school postseason, Watson with Lawrence North and Russell with Cathedral. Lawrence North eliminated Cathedral in sectionals on May 30, though neither pitched.
“I don’t think there’s any problem with it. I enjoy having him here,” Watson said. “It makes me feel comfortable having someone I know really well. He’s my roommate.”
The right-handers were unscored upon in their debuts. Russell worked two innings Monday night against the Bluefield Blue Jays before Watson took his turn for 2 2/3 innings against the same team Wednesday night.
They both had family members at Burlington Athletic Stadium for their first starts. There were also watchful eyes from the Kansas City front office, with Assistant General Manager J.J. Picollo and Scouting Director Lonnie Goldberg looking on.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen them other than on tape,” Picollo said. “You could tell they were really composed. … They have the big arms.”
The comparisons are bound to come, but Picollo said their draft statuses and hometowns would have drawn natural connections even if they didn’t land in the same organization. Indianapolis-based scout Mike Farrell was responsible for finding these prospects, with Russell selected with the 21st overall pick and Watson, in the compensatory first round, with the 33rd overall selection.
“Obviously, it was by coincidence,” Picollo said of the drafting of two players with such similar biographies on the surface. “But it fell into place. It really worked out.”
Russell and Watson had to escape jams in their first outings. Picollo noticed how Watson wasn’t rattled, displaying a high degree of savvy with runners aboard.
“He was so patient out there and sometimes you don’t see that until a few years down the road,” Picollo said. “He made some pitches and got out of it. Very calm and cool and it didn’t seem like it was his first game.”
Moments before the first pitch, Watson was joined by five area youth players around the mound. Watson had to instruct two of them to remove their caps for the playing of the national anthem, unfazed by the situation.
“I kept pointing at them and tapping them and telling them to take them off,” he said with a laugh.
It was all part of his opening night as a professional.
“I think I did a good job handling myself,” he said. “I was having fun. I think I was born to play this game.”
Russell turned away a scholarship at Texas A&M to turn pro. Watson put aside a chance to play for Vanderbilt.
“I think it’s the toughest decision any 18-year-old can make,” Watson said of picking his future’s direction. “(Going into the draft), you pretty much have to tell them if you’re going to take it or not.”
Russell’s debut drew considerable hype. On the dawn of his outing, the local newspaper proclaimed it “Ashe Monday” in a headline.
Russell walked the first batter he faced before settling in. With an attendance of 2,788, Russell said it was the largest crowd he had pitched in front of.
“I was nervous, but I was comfortable,” Russell said. “I heard some people screaming some stuff, but it was all positive because they were Burlington fans. I heard my grandma the most.”
Watson, who signed the day after Russell, witnessed only Russell’s second inning because he arrived at the ballpark just as the game was about to start. After he was issued a uniform, he watched the second inning from the dugout.
When Russell was done, the duo perched along the dugout’s front railing and talked for several innings.
“We were catching up,” Russell said, noting that they had been apart for a whole day, having gone to Arizona for initiation with the organization after signing. “He’s a funny kid.”
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Burlington catcher Colton Frabasilio, who met Russell about three hours before they were on the field for the game, called the right-hander’s slider the best he had seen behind the plate. There were other elements that were impressive, too, including Russell’s brisk and confident pace.
Russell didn’t allow a hit, but walked four batters and struck out one. Watson’s line included two hits, two walks and three strikeouts.
Now that the debuts are out of the way, there’s a summer of learning ahead. There figure to be stops in places such as Pulaski, Va., Elizabethton, Tenn., and Princeton, W.Va.
Thorman said the season provides a good introduction to the pro level. The pitchers will be carefully monitored. Their pitch counts were limited to 45 in the first games.
“I understand what they’re doing with me, trying to keep me healthy,” Watson said. “I’m trying to learn, so I’ve got to keep my pitch count down so I can throw every day. I want to be able to work on my craft.”