MLB.com Columnist

Lindsay Berra

Turner honed basepath prowess at NC State

Turner honed basepath prowess at NC State

On Tuesday night, Sept. 19th, Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner slid, feet-first, into second base with his 42nd stolen base of the season, breaking a Nationals record set by Alfonso Soriano in 2006. The slide wasn't necessary; his jump was so good, Atlanta Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki never even got off a throw.

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Turner missed 10 games early in the season with a strained hamstring and 51 games in July and August with a broken wrist, but baseball fans everywhere will get a chance to see more of him as Washington begins the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile against the Chicago Cubs tonight.

Consider this: Turner finished the 2017 season third in the big leagues with 46 steals, behind Miami's Dee Gordon (60) and Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton (59). Gordon played in 60 more games than Turner, while Hamilton played in 41 more.

Turner steals milestone base

"That tells me that I'd like to see him all year," said Nationals manager Dusty Baker. "He'd probably steal 70 or 80."

That's not the first time a manager has speculated as to how much more Turner had in the tank.

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During his freshman year at North Carolina State University, Turner stole a school-record 57 bases while only being caught four times. But Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent is convinced that, had Turner been a little more selfish, he could have stolen 75 or 80.

"In the way it was an insult for a player to strike out in the old days, it became that way for Trea when he got thrown out stealing bases," Avent says. "He didn't steal if he didn't think he was going to be safe or when the game was already decided. He wouldn't do it just for show."

Turner, however, didn't arrive at NC State thinking he'd become their new "Man of Steal." In fact, he didn't know just how much speed could impact a ballgame until Avent and his assistants recognized his speed and taught him the rapidly-disappearing art of stealing a base.

Game Date Matchup TV/Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 6 CHC 3, WSH 0 WATCH
Gm 2 Oct. 7 WSH 6, CHC 3 WATCH
Gm 3 Oct. 9 CHC 2, WSH 1 WATCH
Gm 4 Oct. 11 WSH 5, CHC 0 WATCH
Gm 5 Oct. 12 CHC 9, WSH 8 WATCH

Turner grew up watching baseball in the late '90s and early 2000s, when Barry Bonds and his contemporaries were hitting home run after home run. At 24, he is far too young to have seen how Lou Brock, Maury Wills or even the younger Rickey Henderson could use their speed to change the flow of a baseball game.

While Turner was always fast, he was also one of the smallest players at Park Vista Community High School in Boynton Beach, Fla.; as a 5-foot-4 freshman, he was cut by the school's travel team.

"They just look for the biggest, strongest, fastest kids and hope they turn into good players," Turner says. "I was a decent baseball player, but I was always pretty undersized."

For that reason, Turner got only two college scholarship offers, from nearby Florida Atlantic University and from NC State. Turner, who had always dreamed of playing for a big school in the ACC or SEC, opted to join the Wolfpack.

"At that point, I didn't know how my speed would play into the game," Turner says. "I really learned how to steal bases from my coaches my freshman year at NC State."

That year, Turner's 57 steals were more than the team totals of 158 Division I teams. He went on to steal 30 bases in 2013 and 26 in 2014 for a grand total of 113 in three seasons.

While Turner's eyes were being opened to what speed could do, he was also making Avent remember.

"A stolen base isn't as big a part of the game as it used to be and I went along with that and became very offensive-minded," Avent says. "I was more about hitting than I was about stolen bases. But Trea changed my mind on that, because he was such a disruptive force."

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Turner's batting average was over .320 in each of his three seasons at NC State, including .368 in 2013. He has a .304 average in his three seasons in Washington.

"I have the speed," Turner says. "People said, 'Just hit the ball on the ground, slap the ball, just get on base.' But I wanted to be able to hit home runs. I wanted to be able to bunt, steal bases, play defense. I never wanted to be a one-dimensional player."

Avent tells another story that gives some insight into Turner's mentality as a baseball player. During Turner's junior year, he was riding shotgun as Avent was giving him a lift to an awards banquet. Turner was tasked with manning the GPS and relaying the directions to Avent. As they were chatting, Avent mentioned an article that had recently been written about Turner, that may have mentioned his arm not being up to par.

"Trea got so mad reading it on his phone that he stopped paying attention to the directions and we missed our exit," Avent recalls. "But once someone wrote something bad about his arm, Trea took a lot of pride in making sure his arm was as strong as anybody's. He would work any amount of hours. He is a perfectionist."

Avent says "perfectionist." Turner says "competitor." But, Turner says, maybe "perfectionist" and "competitor" go hand in hand, and likely all of it came from being largely underestimated in his formative years.

"I think being small was how I learned the game," he says. "Everyone was bigger and stronger than me, so I had to outsmart people. I had to think more deeply to compete with the kids who were more talented than I was. I think that really helped me learn the game, helped me make certain plays or decisions throughout a game which now, at this level, is very important."

At the big league level, Turner has proved his versatility, playing both shortstop and second base and, in 2016, center field. He never once played that position in college, but doing so showcased both his speed and smarts.

Also consider this: Turner's on-base-plus-slugging percentage is 70 points higher than Gordon's and 155 points higher than Hamilton's. Which means, while Nats fans may be basking in the return of Bryce Harper and hanging on every Stephen Strasburg fastball, it is Turner who is their not-so-secret weapon.

"We all know that Trea is a player, and that he's an impact player," says Baker. "When he's out there, we feel better, and the pitcher and the other team feels worse."

Lindsay Berra has covered a variety of sports, from baseball and hockey to tennis and the Olympics, since 1999. She joined MLB.com in 2013. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.