Choosing between school and a professional baseball career was no easy task for Helena Brewers pitcher Preston Gainey.

That’s because the 21-year-old right-hander had to leave the prestigious Naval Academy and military life in order to pursue his lifelong dream. It was one of the toughest decisions he has had to make, but after praying and talking it over with his family, Gainey said he feels he is right where he belongs.

“I was lucky to be able to go there and have the opportunity to serve my country, but I just felt like I can always go back into the military if baseball doesn’t end up working out,” said the Pompano Beach, Fla., native, who was selected in the 11th round by Milwaukee. “I only get one shot at chasing my dream, which is baseball.”

While some players opt to return to college for another year and put baseball on the backburner only to play later, it wasn’t exactly an option for Gainey. Had Gainey gone back to Navy, he would have most likely had to give up the sport he’d played all his life for good. Since Gainey was just a sophomore this last season, though, he hadn’t yet locked into a contract with the Academy. When students return for a third year, they sign a 2 for 7 agreement that essentially means committing to two more years of school and then a minimum of five years of military service.

“That’s a contract you can’t really get out of,” said Gainey, who yielded just nine extra base hits through more than 50 innings last year for the Midshipmen. “Ever since I’ve been here (Helena) I’ve felt like this is where I am supposed to be ... it took a lot of thought to decide to leave the Academy, but you can’t really look back and I know God has me here for a reason.”

Gainey’s life has taken several unexpected twists and turns. He moved around a lot after his father, James, was diagnosed with a heart valve problem that led him to quit practicing law, forcing the family to relocate for a new job.

“Being a lawyer just became too stressful,” Preston Gainey said.

James, who was born with the condition and never knew about it until a routine checkup, was also an athlete. He played college football for the University of Florida before a professional career as a kicker in the now-defunct USFL prior to his diagnosis, and it took three open-heart surgeries to fix the abnormal aortic valve.

Gainey attended high school in Jacksonville, Fla., from his freshman through junior season, and said the move to south Florida his senior year was a blessing in disguise. It was at Calvary Christian Academy where he had a breakout season and caught the eye of Naval Academy scouts.

Although both of Gainey’s grandfathers and a great uncle were in the service, a life in the military had never occurred to him before being recruited.

“Everything the Naval Academy offered — a great education, a chance to serve your country and have a job — especially in today’s economy, it was just kind of a good deal,” he said.

The Academy’s extensive application process — which requires a nomination from a Congressman or Senator, among other things — meant Gainey, a 2009 high school graduate, wouldn’t be able to enroll until the following school year since he had committed late. He spent the year away from the game helping out with his local high school and said he matured during that time. Now, he’s grateful he hadn’t gotten in immediately, as he likely wouldn’t be playing professional baseball today since he would be a junior.

“Everything has worked out,” said Gainey, who throws a fastball in the mid-90s, a slider and changeup. Since arriving in Helena on June 26, Gainey has given up two hits and two unearned runs in three innings of relief, with a 2:1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.

Helena lost a huge chunk of its offense Saturday when third baseman Michael Garza was promoted to Class-A (low) Wisconsin. In 19 games with the Brewers, Garza was batting .407 — second in the Pioneer League — with 33 hits, 13 RBIs (17 percent of the team’s total), two homers, two triples and four doubles. He had seven runs and five stolen bases while playing in every game, and hit safely in 11 straight games prior to his promotion. Taking Garza out of the equation, the Brewers batting average drops to .245 from .265.

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Brewers hitting coach Don Money said Garza is a workhorse whose production will be tough to replace.

“We’ll miss him big time. He was our offense, he was our fourth hitter,” said Money, who played for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Brewers from 1968-1983. “You look at a spray chart, he uses all parts of the field, he hits early in the count ... he’s just a good hitter.”

Garza said via a Twitter message Sunday that he was thrilled to be called up.

“The Timber Rattlers have been a very welcoming community and the atmosphere surrounding the team is great,” he wrote. “The whole process is about learning and progressing as a player. I learned a lot from the coaching staff in Helena.”

While it’s a much-deserved promotion for the Georgetown product, it leaves a dent in a lineup that has struggled some this season. The Brewers were batting .270 heading into Sunday’s game and ranked last in the Pioneer League in runs (97), doubles (29), home runs (7) and RBIs (84). Prior to Saturday night’s game, Money had expressed disappointment with the situational hitting, or lack thereof, and high number of runners stranded on second and third. In the previous series against Billings, Helena had left 32 men on base and hit 6 for 47 with runners in scoring position.

“We were 1 for 4 getting men in from third with less than two outs on Friday,” Money noted. “I don’t know what the hitters are thinking about in the batter’s box with a man on third base and one out. Are you thinking about hitting a home run? Thinking about hitting a double? They just need to put it in play, see what happens ... get a ground ball. We just talk to them, that’s all you can do. Young hitters have to have a plan at the plate.”

Whatever he said to them, it seems to have worked. After loading the bases with one out in the second inning Saturday and failing to score, the Brewers settled in, getting big-time base knocks in an 8-1 win over Missoula. Four of their RBIs came with two outs, and just three of their 13 hits were for extra-bases — proof that small ball works just fine for a team not exactly known for its power.

Former Helena Brewer Jake Odorizzi started for the United States in Sunday’s Futures Game and went one inning, giving up a home run. Odorizzi, who went to Kansas City in Milwaukee’s trade for Zack Greinke in 2010, is 5-0 this season for Triple-A Omaha. He was 1-4 with a 4.40 ERA in a Helena uniform. Another former Pioneer League player, shortstop Billy Hamilton (Billings), also started in the Futures Game, driving in two runs in the 17-5 rout. Hamilton already has an astounding 108 stolen bases this season in the California League.

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