'Topes' Buss becomes a star

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — He forced his way into lineup, All-Star game, with his play

It’s his name that first draws you in. But it’s Chili Buss’ game that keeps your attention.

“Chili was the odd man out when the season started,” Albuquerque Isotopes manager Lorenzo Bundy said. “And then you mix him in there, and he does something.”

Something? Yes, you could say that.

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“He makes you want to write his name on the lineup card,” Bundy said. “He forced my hand.”

Headed into the Triple-A All-Star break, Buss was hitting .292 with 12 home runs and a team-leading 71 RBIs, which ranks him No. 2 in that category in the Pacific Coast League. Twice this season, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Buss has driven in six runs in a game.

And yet, even with the best record in the PCL, the Isotopes garnered only one All-Star invitation, and that was Buss, the 26-year-old from suburban Detroit.

“It definitely is a thrill,” said the modest Buss. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what it’s all about.”

On a team with several left-handed bats in the outfield – a list that includes Jeremy Moore, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Matt Angle – it’s Buss who has emerged from a crowded field to make arguably the most clear-cut stamp on this Albuquerque season.

“Chili Buss is underrated,” teammate Justin Sellers said. “I think he can play in the big leagues and I’m very happy he got to go to the All-Star Game.”

This is Buss’ first All-Star game in the Dodgers’ organization.

“Every year, you go in hoping to have a strong year,” said Buss, whose legal first name is Nick. Chili is his middle name, given to him by his father in tribute to former Major Leaguer Chil Davis.

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But he didn’t pick up Chili as a regular name until his college days at Southern Cal when someone saw his ID and decided that Nick didn’t sound nearly as smooth as Chili.

“Ever since,” Buss said, “it’s been more Chili than Nick.”

Even as others are quick to praise Buss, he remains extremely humble – “he’s a shy guy,” Sellers said – about his contributions to Albuquerque’s success.

“I was playing with some guys who had established themselves more than me, so I didn’t know what to expect. You just hope for the best.”

The promotion of Scott Van Slyke to Los Angeles might have been the one Isotopes transaction that helped Buss earn more at-bats.

And in a business in which opportunity is everything, Buss flourished quickly. And with a flourish, too, given his propensity for the long ball.

“I think it was great having some success early on,” Buss said, “because it’s such a goofy game with its ups and downs.”

Still, not everyone viewed Buss’ Triple-A breakout as an anomoly.

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“I thought last year in the second half, he turned his season around,” said Isotopes hitting coach Franklin Stubbs. “He had a lot of great at-bats, and I saw him carry that over to spring training.”

Added Bundy: “He’s adapted very well as far as being a run producer. We never told him to change his swing, never told him to change his game. Just be who he is, and who he is is pretty darn good.”

Tonight, Buss will compete for the PCL against the International League in the annual midsummer showcase in Reno, Nev.

“There’s not a lot of pressure,” Buss said.

It should provide a respite from the season, at the very least, especially for a player whose work ethic is lauded by everyone in the Isotopes clubhouse.

“He’s always the first one in the cage,” said fellow Albuquerque outfielder Alex Castellanos, who leads the team with 13 homers. “That’s what you have to do if you want to make a name for yourself.”

Stubbs said Buss has a tremendous inner engine, and his power numbers this season reflect his preparation.

“He had more power than what he was showing,” said Stubbs. “Sometimes, he can be too hard on himself.”

About Buss’ only real regret is that he won’t have some company from within his own roster tonight.

“It’s such a solid team, with so many quality players,” he said.

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