LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As David Hale totaled 128 innings while pursuing an Operations Research and Financial Engineering degree from Princeton University, his dream of pitching at the Major League level was clouded by analytical thoughts that he would more realistically end up in the financial world.
Fortunately, that did not prevent Hale from pursuing his dream, which proved to be as satisfying as he could have envisioned after his hometown Braves gave him an unexpected mid-September promotion to the Major League level last year.
When Hale made his big league debut in a Sept. 13 start against the Padres, he found himself standing on the same mound that his childhood idols John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine had once inhabited. In the stands were many of the same friends and family members who had often sat alongside him in these same Turner Field stands.
But instead allowing the nerves to overwhelm him, Hale fed off the emotions as he notched nine strikeouts over the five scoreless innings he tossed just 20 minutes south of his childhood home in Marietta, Ga.
"[The nerves] get the adrenaline going and it gets you focused more than anything," Hale said. "There's a healthy and an unhealthy amount of it. But it makes me focus more."
Hale will have at least a few more opportunities to feed off his nervous energy as he begins this season as part of the four-man starting rotation Atlanta will utilize during the first two weeks of the regular season. If he extends the success he had when he allowed just one run in two September starts last year, there's a chance he could keep a rotation spot until Mike Minor is deemed ready to pitch at the big league level during April's second half.
While the success he encountered last year helped, Hale -- ranked ninth in the Braves' system by MLB.com -- has gained a spot in Atlanta's depleted rotation courtesy of the injuries that have sidelined Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Minor.
"You don't want to see someone get hurt. We're all friends here and all of that. Now that I have the opportunity, I'm planning on not letting it go," Hale said. "I need to do my best and I want to represent this team the best that I can."
When the regular season begins, Hale will attempt to show better command than he did in 4 1/3 innings in Wednesday's 7-0 loss to the Yankees. Two of the three runs he surrendered were scored by batters he had walked.
Hale had issued just two walks in the previous three starts he had made during the Grapefruit League season. But he has allowed 14 hits and surrendered seven earned runs in 12 1/3 innings.
"I know exactly what I was doing wrong," Hale said after Wednesday's start. "It was just a little glitch in the motion, and I know what to fix. I felt my pitches were working pretty well. I've just got to slow my lower half down a little bit. Then, I won't be throwing as many balls."
Along with developing a sinking fastball and a slider that has gained more promise over the past few weeks, Hale has the ability to utilize those analytical skills he had once planned to use in the business world. But instead of crunching numbers, he finds much more satisfaction in evaluating mechanics, pitch selections and scouting reports.
"I don't get into any analytical discussions with him, because I know he'll outsmart me," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
After receiving a $405,000 signing bonus when the Braves selected him in the third round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Hale understood the importance of maintaining a fall-back plan. Benefitting from the fact that Princeton did not begin classes until mid-September, Hale immediately went to the New Jersey campus at the end of two of his Minor League seasons to begin completing the two semesters he needed to graduate.
"It's a totally different game," Hale said. "I think one prepared me for the other just with my personality and what it formed me into. But both are very difficult. You can't relax in any of them."
Hale concedes that last year's brief big league experience gave him some confidence as he approaches the upcoming season. But he has no desire to find a comfort level that would deny him a chance to feel that nervous sensation that keeps him focused.
"I never want the nerves to go away," Hale said. "Maybe a little less than it was in September. But I want that there. If they're ever gone, I think you're losing some of that passion."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.