Pace Academy baseball hasn’t won a state title since 1995, when the program earned its third-straight trophy. But according to head coach Nelson Pedraza, the Knights may have the firepower to end the drought this spring.
“This is a very special team from top to bottom,” said Pedraza, who is in his first season at Pace Academy after leaving the Cobb County-based 6-4-3 DP Athletics, a top developmental organization. “A lot of speed, a lot of power, a lot of good base running.”
Pace, which after its April 20 win over rival Lovett was 22-4 and 10-1 in region play, is No. 1 in the AJC’s Class AA rankings. The Knights have a senior-laden lineup, a strong core of younger players and one of the top prep prospects in the nation in R.J. Austin.
Austin, a senior shortstop, has starred for Pace Academy since joining the Knights as a sophomore in a Covid-shortened season. The athletic, powerfully built infielder is committed to the powerhouse baseball program at Vanderbilt but is also projected to be selected in the first several rounds of the Major League Baseball draft in July. He has featured with USA Baseball and has a coveted mix of elite range at shortstop, power to all fields at the plate and a work ethic that doesn’t take a day off.
“R.J. calls me every day of the week and says, ‘Can we go to the field?’” Pedraza said. “He’s a workaholic. He’s got a bright future.”
Austin is as devoted to improving his game as he is to giving back to his community.
Austin is making his mark with outreach to Black and other minority youths, holding camps at Lithia Springs High School in Douglas County, which is closer to his home, for players under 14.
Last November, Austin, along with close friend and middle-infield prospect Termarr Johnson of Mays High School, held his second-annual clinic for 40-plus aspiring young baseball stars. They partnered with The Players’ Alliance, an organization affiliated with MLB that is committed to growing the game with Black youth.
One of the Alliance’s directors, retired star pitcher C.C. Sabathia, learned of Austin’s efforts and offered support (Sabathia’s son Carsten has played with Austin with USA Baseball). The Players’ Alliance provided free gear for the attendees, and Austin received invaluable public support from Sabathia, the Alliance and its president, former star outfielder Curtis Granderson.
“When I was younger, I wanted stuff like that, camps like that, with teenagers that I looked up to from a young age,” Austin said. “So I wanted to provide that for kids and to show the things I’ve learned. Just to show young people how to play the game and to have fun playing the game, just the basics of it.”
Austin’s athletics career started at Sandtown Park in South Fulton, where his close friend Johnson also got his start. There he played football, basketball and baseball, starting in T-ball at the age of 4. He comes from an athletic family – his father, Reggie Sr., played football at Wake Forest and played three seasons as a cornerback with the Chicago Bears. But his uncle, Joe Austin, and his cousin, Jay, helped instill a love of baseball. Joe played baseball collegiately at Alabama State and served as R.J.’s hitting and fielding coach in his early playing days. Jay was selected in the second round of the 2008 draft by the Houston Astros after being a star player at North Atlanta High School.
Austin is also inspired to give back due to the influence of his time with the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association (MGBA), a group founded by former Braves outfielder and south Fulton County native Marquis Grissom, which has the same mission of bringing baseball instruction and resources to underserved communities. Austin played above his age group with MGBA teams for several seasons after his early days at Sandtown. Marquis Grissom Jr., who is currently playing baseball at Georgia Tech, is a few years older than Austin.
“I’ve been around (the Grissom) family since I was about 10 years old,” Austin said. “I know his son and we support each other.”
Dedication to service
His high school coach, Pedraza, is as impressed with Austin’s dedication to service as he is with his growing skill set.
“That’s something you rarely see from a guy who hasn’t even signed as a pro,” Pedraza said. “He’s already giving back to the community. He’s very humble, and he’s very focused on what he wants to do as far as giving back. And those camps are awesome. He’s doing great things for those kids.
“By doing that, he might keep those kids from getting in trouble. And either way, whether he goes to play for Vandy or whether he gets drafted this year, he’ll continue doing it.”
With support from The Players’ Alliance, Austin hopes to continue growing his clinics, wherever his career takes him in the short term.
“We want it to get bigger and bigger,” Austin said. “I want more kids to come out from different states. Now, it’s mostly from Georgia and Alabama. I want it to be more national, where people from all over the country feel like they can attend.”
Bringing home the state title
For his time remaining at Pace Academy, Austin wants to bring home that first state title since 1995, the year that one of his mentors, Grissom Sr., caught the final out in center field to kick off the Braves’ World Series Championship celebration.
Pedraza has known Austin since he was 14, and the rising star joined Pedraza at 6-4-3 DP Athletics for his 15-and-under playing days (Austin has since joined the vaunted East Cobb Astros program).
Pedraza, a former shortstop himself who was drafted by Cleveland at age 16 out of Puerto Rico, is somewhat of a guru of the middle infield. Along with Pedraza’s instruction over the last several years, Austin has used his relentless work ethic to address the flaws in his game.
“One of the things I was very hard on him about was his arm slot throwing to first base,” Pedraza said. “And I said, ‘you’re not going to go far with this. You’ve got to clean it up.’ … He took it to heart, and his arm slot is now perfect.”
One of the players Pedraza compares Austin to is former Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons, renowned for his elite range and arm strength at shortstop.
“R.J. gets to some balls where you say, ‘Whoa, holy cow, how’d he get to the other side of the bag?’” Pedraza said. “Or, ‘How’d he go practically behind third base to make that backhand play?’”
In the run-up to the state playoffs, Austin knows the only way to cap his Pace Academy career with a title is to take a team-first approach.
“We want to be the team to win (a state title),” he said. “I feel like we can make that goal happen if we all do the right things and play our game.”