Pilots' Alex Close excelling after draft disappointment

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Rising senior was attracted by school's Christian mission.

HAMPTON — Alex Close is the first to acknowledge he's not a can't-miss, five-tool, Mike Trout clone. Sabermetricians don't swoon at his numbers, and Major League scouts don't speed-dial the front office after his every at-bat.

But Close is a natural power hitter, and throughout his youth career he knew little except individual and team achievement. A freshman All-America season at Liberty University in 2012 — he led the Big South with 14 home runs — continued that arc, making his 2013 crash all the more jarring.

Faith, family and a summer with the Peninsula Pilots helped him rebound.

"So when the walls come falling down on me

"And when I'm lost in the current of a raging sea

"I have this blessed assurance holding me"

Pilots fans may recognize the lyric. It's from the song Close selected — "Where I Belong," by Building 429 — to be played before each of his at-bats.

Hands above their heads, spectators at Liberty home games clap rhythmically to the song as Close approaches the plate. The routine has caught on Hampton's War Memorial Stadium, as well.

"A lot of times when I get in the (batter's) box, I'm smiling," Close said, "because I'm listening to the words."

The words remind Close of life's higher purpose and that in all pursuits he's striving to please, in his words, "the ultimate fan."

"Alex is a Christian leader, one of our captains," Liberty coach Jim Toman said. "An awesome young man."

This is Close's second summer on the Peninsula. Last year he helped the Pilots win their first Coastal Plain League championship, and this summer he's hitting a robust .304 with 20 RBIs and a team-high five home runs — the grand slam he hit to left-center at Asheboro last month was, from all accounts, majestic.

Close earned a place in the CPL All-Star Game, and Sunday he won the event's home run derby, hitting 18 in three rounds.

"I was in it two summers ago (with the Forest City Owls), and I hit zero," Close said. "So I was just worried about (getting) the first one. Once I got the first one, I was like, 'Alright, the wind's blowing out. Just get them up in the air.'"

As well as Close is playing this summer as a first baseman/catcher, and as much as he's embraced the Pilots family, he didn't really want to return. Rather, he hoped to sign a professional contract and commence the universal baseball quest for the Major Leagues.

But after drafting Close as a catcher in the 27th round, with the 813th overall pick, and after sending four different scouts to Pilots games, the Kansas City Royals informed him they had too much money invested in other low-minors catchers.

"I think they had my best interest at heart," Close said.

"He can hit, man," Pilots coach Hank Morgan said. "He's good enough to play at that level right now. It smells like he was taken as insurance in case they weren't able to sign somebody else they drafted."

But Morgan was thrilled to have Close for the entire 2014 season. Moreover, he thinks so much of Close off the field that he again assigned him the ultimate hosts: his in-laws, Pam and Ralph Wood.

You don't arrange for someone to bunk with your wife's parents for consecutive summers unless you really trust him. And Close has validated that trust, even earning the keys to Ralph's car on occasion.

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