Alaskan summer league a confidence boost for McNairy


Photo courtesy of Sabrena Combs

Carey Reeder | @realCareyReeder, Staff Reporter

The state of Alaska averages only one person per square mile, but thousands of Alaskans gathered to watch Alabama sophomore pitcher Jacob McNairy over a three-month stretch last summer.

“The Last Frontier” became McNairy’s temporary home while he pitched for the Matsu Miners of the Alaska Baseball League (ABL).

“It was a rough year here [at Alabama] last year,” McNairy said. “Definitely after the summer it boosted my confidence, and I’m using that going forward.”

McNairy’s journey began in the fall of 2018 when Alabama assistant coach Jerry Zulli approached him and sophomore infielder Drew Williamson about the opportunity to play in the ABL. 

The league’s average team roster score, which is calculated by the Collegiate Summer Baseball Register and based on the competition level of the players’ college programs, ranked third out of 32 summer leagues. The Register also ranked the Miners 24th out of 260 summer league teams nationwide after their 26-18 season in 2019.

In late May, the two sophomores made the 4,159-mile trip from Sewell-Thomas Stadium and Tuscaloosa’s sweltering heat to Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer, Alaska. The covered mountains and 60-degree weather were the first two things McNairy noticed off the plane.

From there, the two moved in with their hosts, Sabrena and David Combs. Sabrena, who is the president of the Matsu Miners organization, welcomed both Alabama players with open arms.

“[McNairy] was great to have, and him and Drew were both super Southern and super polite,” Sabrena Combs said.

Nestled at the bottom of the Matanuska Valley, Hermon Brothers Field features a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and crazed baseball fans. Combs said the Miners have “by far” the league’s largest fan base.

For the city of Palmer, summer baseball is their major league season. This past summer was the hottest Alaskan summer on record, and the ballpark was packed every time the Miners took the field.

“The people, that’s what they live for: summer baseball. And everyone was so involved,” McNairy said. “The mountains and the people just made it really fun.”

The biggest adjustment for McNairy during his time in Alaska was the 22 hours of constant sunlight throughout the day. The players’ room in the Combs’ home featured two windows that were half above ground and half below. Blackout curtains were hung over the windows to give some sense of darkness, but their new sleeping schedules still took some time to get used to.

“It was really different for me and Drew,” McNairy said. “We would drive home after games at 11 p.m. and it’s still daylight. It was weird.”

A typical day began with the Combs family providing breakfast. Then the two sophomores went off to Hermon Brothers Field for batting practice at noon. After lunch, the rest of the day would include one or two games in the evening, all in bright sunlight.

McNairy, who started throughout high school and was a reliever as a freshman at Alabama, was the Miners’ closer. He stacked up nine saves throughout the season to lead the team and tie for most in the ABL. His 1.25 ERA was the lowest on the team and the fourth-lowest in the league with at least 10 innings pitched.

Based on the score, if the Miners were up by less than three runs, McNairy would come in to close the game. Miners pitching coach Jeff Urlaub didn’t change much about McNairy’s mechanics or pitches, telling him, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

“We worked on the mental approach more, reading hitters and reading swings. I thought he did a good job with that,” Urlaub said. “The best thing he has is that competitiveness in between his ears. He shows that fire.”

Sabermetric statistics also point to McNairy’s successful summer. His power finesse ratio (the sum of strikeouts and walks divided by innings pitched) of 0.969 was the second-lowest on the team, and his WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 0.71 tied for the lowest on the team. 

Overall, McNairy recorded 19 strikeouts in 21.2 innings pitched and gave up just 13 hits and three earned runs.

“I think he learned he’s good enough to compete against anybody,” Alabama pitching coach Jason Jackson said. “You get better at baseball by playing baseball, and I think those game reps gave him a lot of confidence.”

McNairy’s season totals were enough to earn him a spot in the ABL All-Star Game at the end of the season. More than 15 MLB scouts were in attendance to watch the sophomore pitch an inning and record one strikeout.

After the Miners were eliminated from the playoffs on Aug. 1, McNairy returned to Tuscaloosa and took a month off. Although his time with the Miners is over, he still keeps in touch with assistant coach David Dennis, who reaches out from time to time to joke, ask how baseball is going or trade knowledge about the game.

With McNairy’s value in the Alabama rotation growing larger, a return to Alaska might not be in the near future, but he’s never ruling out a visit to the baseball hotbed that is Palmer, Alaska.

“I’d go back for a couple weeks,” McNairy said. “Three months is a long time. I’d go back to see people and fish. The people up there are great.”