Tacoma Rainiers

Rainiers infielder Noriega catches on quickly at third base, becomes Triple-A All-Star

It’s a position of solitude — one that requires quick reflexes, a strong arm and a substantial amount of courage.

There’s nothing easy about playing third base.

But Tacoma Rainiers infielder Gabriel Noriega, who has never played third before this season, wants to show he can play the position if it helps him get to the major leagues.

“I try to keep working hard on third base because I don’t know if in the future I’m going play at third base in the big leagues,” Noriega said through teammate Abraham Almonte, who translated from Spanish to English. “I (want) to play, so I need to take advantage of that right now.”

Noriega’s defensive talent, and some improvement at the plate, was enough to impress his peers and coaches from around the Pacific Coast League to land him in the starting lineup at theTriple-A All-Star Game on Wednesday in Durham, North Carolina.

Noriega, a 23-year-old from Venezuela, was always known as a good fielder. He played some second base but mostly shortstop since signing with the Mariners as a 17-year-old free agent in 2007.

Then, four days after his Triple-A debut with the Rainiers on April 16, he played third base for the first time.

The move was necessary considering the talent the Rainiers have — fellow Rainiers All-Stars Chris Taylor and Nick Franklin are also middle infielders. It wasn’t long after that when the Rainiers coaching staff decided to rotate Noriega to third base, which would have him catching line drives traveling at speeds of up to 125 mph.

No gripes were heard from his end.

“He just said, ‘OK. Let me play,’ ” Rainiers hitting coach Cory Snyder said. “His best position is at short, but to make the All-Star team at third it shows what kind of an athlete he is, what kind of hands he has, what kind of person he is. That, ‘Hey, I don’t care where you put me, as long as I’m in those nine, I’m good.’ ”

Noriega’s 29 RBIs and a career-high .310 batting average — second on the team and 15th in the PCL — is a bonus.

“He’s always had a little bit of a stigma of all defense and no offense,” Rainiers manager Roy Howell said. “We’re almost two-thirds through the season and he’s hitting over .300. You just got to tip your hat to him.”

Noriega, a career .254 hitter in the minors, has not only shown to be a better situational hitter but one with a knack for coming through in key moments.

An example was against Fresno on July 11. After going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, Noriega hit a line-drive single to lead off the bottom of the 10th inning. He later scored the game-winner from third when Almonte singled.

“That’s the growth. In the past, if he struggles in those first couple times at bat, that would be it,” Snyder said. “It’s nice to see him fight every at-bat — he may have two or three strikeouts —but that fourth at-bat, he grinds it out. And that’s really good to see him going out there with an attitude.”

Despite facing tougher pitchers and some that have major league experience, nothing about his routine has changed.

“I just try to play the game like I’ve always played,” Noriega said. “Sometimes when you try too hard, you don’t get good results. I just try to prepare myself well in practice so when the game time comes, I just need to relax and whatever happens, happens.”

Noriega’s versatility makes him an interesting prospect. His ability to pick up third base and hit for average helps his chances of reaching the majors.

“I’m just so proud of him. It’s great to see it happen when a guy works as hard as he has and it pays off,” Howell said. “As a coach, as a manager, as a hitting coach, that’s why we do it and guys get it. He’s got it.”

Noriega said he never thinks about impressing the scouts who could be watching him. He sees himself achieving his dream — whenever that may be — which Snyder said he believes could happen soon.

“I think he could play in the big leagues at the end of the year or first thing next year,” Snyder said. “Physically, I think he’s been ready for a couple years, but just getting that mental part ready to go, it’s just going to take maturity.”