When University of Rhode IslandÂ baseball headÂ coach Jim Foster had one remaining roster spot for his team’s 2014 campaign, he knew whom to call.
Senior Jonathan Nazarko, 22,Â of East Lyme, Conn., had just finished his second season as a walk-on for men’s basketball team when FosterÂ called himÂ up.Â NazarkoÂ earned a spot on the Rams’ rosterÂ during his freshmen year, butÂ never touched foot on the fieldÂ and was unable to make the roster sophomore year because of injuries. Foster gave him a chance to return to theÂ dugoutÂ and to the sport where he was a team captain and All-Area selection at East Lyme High School.
Nazarko said he felt that his grandfather, who was an ardent fan of the sport and passed awayÂ one month after he was cut in 2012, had an impact on hisÂ opportunityÂ to return to baseball. He believed that the lone roster spot that was open for him was a little more than luck.
“I think that it was more like [my grandfather] is the one that gave me that second chance,” Nazarko said. “When I heard I could come back, IÂ wanted to play. When basketball season ends and there was a spot open on the team, that just doesn’t happen. I thought that he had something to do with that.Â He’s the reason I got a chance to go back on the field.”
The journey back to baseball for Nazarko involved himÂ temporarilyÂ trading in his glove and cap for a sleeveless jersey. DuringÂ his junior yearÂ at URI,Â Nazarko walked onto the men’sÂ basketballÂ squad to harness his talents on the court. In high school he was one of the premier players on his team and was able to earn All-League, All-Area and All-State honors during his time at East Lyme. Additionally,Â he recorded 1,500 points, won the Presidential Scholar AwardÂ and captured aÂ leagueÂ championship during his senior season.
Nazarko decided thatÂ with Jim Baron removed from his post as head men’s basketball coach and Dan Hurley replacing him,Â there was a chance he would be searching for new blood on the squad.
“I love basketball and wanted to give it a shot,” Nazarko said. “Luckily I made that team. Being among those guys is great. I learned so much from Coach Hurley. [He was] very disciplined, taught me a lot about the sport [of basketball] and life and I’ll take a lot from that.”
Hurley called Nazarko a pleasure to coach and noted his increased role this past season when injuries and transfers stacked up for the Rams.Â Nazarko played inÂ 13Â games for Rhode Island during his two years with the team from 2012-14,Â logging 13Â minutes, one rebound, three personal fouls and one steal.
HurleyÂ noticed however thatÂ while basketball was his primary focus, Nazarko’s love for baseball runs deep. He said that during the squad’s preseason NIT trip to Arizona his player had encountered Terry Francona, current manager of the Cleveland Indians and two-time World Series champion with theÂ Boston Red Sox, at the gym.Â Hurley saw Nazarko’s appreciation for the gameÂ and said he wasÂ excitedÂ toÂ discuss it at any given time.
“It’s a tough role as a walk-on,” Hurley said. “The expectation level and time commitment are the same [as all other players] – whether it is practice, workouts, travel, study hall, etc. But the reward isn’t always there in terms of playing time. Some walk-ons embrace that role. Some fight it. The ones who fight it usually don’t make it. But Jon bought in and we really appreciate that. It doesn’t go unnoticed among the coaches within the program.Â Jon is a hard worker and a great athlete and I know how much baseball meant to him.”
Nazarko said that playing for Hurley was not a simple task butÂ added that Hurley’sÂ coaching styleÂ helped him to appreciate and put into perspective his role on the team. He was able to transition his improved style of play and abilityÂ to the baseball diamond – where he was available to help in any capacity during theÂ spring.
NazarkoÂ made his first appearance of the 2014 season for Rhode Island on March 18 against Sacred Heart University. In the ninth inning heÂ pinch-ran for senior PatÂ Quinn, whoseÂ RBI single tied the game at nine runs apiece. Nazarko eventually made his way over to third base and scored the game-winning run for the Rams when Mike Sherburne knocked him in.
“I was lucky to play, Coach gave me an opportunity to play,” Nazarko said. “[There was]Â a base knock down the line and I’m running as hard as I can. I didn’t see the baseball. Being able to help my team win meant a lot to me.”
Two weeks to the day later,Â Nazarko made his first career start in any Rhode Island uniform, baseballÂ or basketball, on April 1 in a 6-0 loss to Northeastern University. Despite going hitless in four at-bats, the starting center fielderÂ called the experience “a dream come true” and said it felt good to go out there again for his grandfather and all of his supporters.
He was given another chance to start on April 4 to open up a three-game series against Atlantic 10 opponentÂ Fordham University and didn’t disappoint. Nazarko registered his firstÂ hit,Â going 1-for-3 with a run scored for Rhode Island in an 8-6 victory.
Nazarko’s speed was a factor in the game as he reached on a throwing error on an attempted sacrifice bunt, which allowed teammate Nick DeRegis to reach third base and eventually score to cushion the Rams’ lead, 5-2.
He credited Quinn, who gave him some hitting tips entering the pivotal set with Fordham, with helping him to improve his swing at the plate.Â Nazarko had a few strikeouts andÂ only one run scoredÂ entering the first gameÂ against Fordham.
“HisÂ tips helped me with picking up the ball,” Nazarko said. “He told me to keep staring atÂ theÂ logo on the pitcher’s hat and howÂ itÂ helps you see the ball longer. It helped me square up a few balls.”
Nazarko’s swing came into form in the rubber game with Fordham on April 6 when he fired a single through the left side in the third inning to get an anemic Rhode Island offense started. He then stole second base, successfully advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt and scored on shortstop Tim Caputo’s sacrifice fly for the eventual game-winner.
He continued to spark Rhode Island’s offense in hisÂ fourthÂ start of the season when he sent a shot up the middle to score left fielder Dan Hetzel from second base for his first-career RBI. His hit gave pitcher Lou Distasio a 2-0 lead and enough insurance to close out his one-hit complete game shutout.
“Johnny’s come a long way,” Foster said. “He’s more physical, he’s grown into his frame [and] he’s more mature. He hasn’t swung a bat, hasn’t played any summer ball, hasn’t played any fall ball [since being cut]. That’s ridiculous. That doesn’t happen in baseball. Baseball’s designed to play every day, when you don’t play three days in a row your body gets all screwed up. For him not to play for two years and be able to come out here and compete at a Division-I level, it’s a pretty cool thing.”
Nazarko has been able to raise his batting average by 45 points over the past two weeks, going from .091 entering the Fordham series to .136 entering a three-game home set against George Mason University.Â In 22 at-bats he has recorded three runs, three hits,Â two walks, one RBI and one stolen base, as well as a steadily rising .208 on-base percentage.
Foster said that as long as Nazarko continues to show improvement there is a substantial chance for him to become an everyday starter in his final season with Rhode Island.
Nazarko said that it is difficultÂ to predict what his impactÂ will be on the team as the 7-27Â Rams battle for a place in the Atlantic 10 playoffs, but he intends to do what is best for the team. He said while he may not get a chance to start every game, he will be noticed on the field when the time comes.
“It’s tough to go right onto the field and start playing,” Nazarko said. “I hope to have an impact defensively and on the bases especially. That’s something I pride myself on. Hitting’s going to come, or it’s not, but defensively, on the bases, enthusiasm, picking up players; that’s where it really happens.”
Nazarko’s path back to the baseball field has been an unorthodox one, but the two-sport walk-on has taken every opportunity available to him in his chase to get back to the diamond. He will look to continue making an impact as the Rams host Virginia Commonwealth University this weekend at Bill Beck Field.