Luke Williams’ storybook journey continues in front of his family
LOS ANGELES—When Luke Williams entered the circle on the deck as a hitter at Dodger Stadium on Monday night, he made sure not to look back at the bleachers.
More than 75 of Williams’ closest friends and family, many wearing t-shirts with a screen-printed image of his face on the front, filled the seats along the first baseline and went wild when he got out of the canoe.
Williams, who grew up about an hour south of Dodger Stadium in Laguna Niguel, Calif., focused on the pitcher. He knew that if he looked back and saw all the people who had helped him achieve his dream of reaching the major leagues, he would be too overwhelmed to complete the task at hand.
“I just made sure I didn’t watch them,” Williams said. “I knew as soon as I looked at them that I would be pretty lost.”
The strategy worked. In his first batting career on the road, playing in a stadium he grew up going to as a kid, with all the people he loved most in attendance, Williams hit a single into center field.
“Being able to come home to California and play in front of family and friends is pretty special,” Williams said. “Mostly because I wouldn’t be here without a lot of them.”
Williams, a 24-year-old Phillies prospect, has enjoyed a dizzying rise over the past two weeks. After coming into the season virtually unknown outside of the Phillies organization, he became the surprise star of Team USA’s Olympic qualifying squad earlier this month and turned that performance into his first call-up in the major league.
In a surreal five-day span from June 5-9, he led Team USA to the Olympics, received his first major league call-up, got his first major league hit and hit a home run.
“He showed a lot of his toolkit early on,” Phillies general manager Sam Fuld said. “He did so many things so quickly and it’s fun to watch because he works hard and he’s a great boy.”
The Phillies drafted Williams in the third round in 2015 from Dana Hills (Calif.) High and gave him a $719,800 signing bonus for giving up a commitment to Cal Poly. He displayed impressive athleticism and defensive versatility throughout his career, but his bat never had much of an impact. In his first four seasons as a minor, Williams never exceeded .245 outside of Rookie levels and never posted a slugging percentage above .395.
After spending the last year at the alternate training site, Williams entered 2021 with a different player to the one last seen at the minors two years ago. He participated in major league spring training with the Phillies and impressed club officials with an improved approach aimed at putting more of the ball in play. He continued to perform well at the alternate training site in April and opened the minor league season in May on a tear for Triple-A Lehigh Valley, batting .352/.439/.465 with four doubles, two triples and 15 runs scored in 18 games.
The performance caught the attention of the Phillies, who discussed calling him even then, according to Fuld. It also caught the eye of USA Baseball Executive Director and CEO Paul Seiler.
“He may not have been a name before qualifying, but as we were looking for potential players for (Team USA), one of the realities was that we needed players who were performing right now,” Seiler said. . “Being a top prospect doesn’t always mean you’re the best player right now. As we were reviewing performance at the start of the minor league season, Luke was on fire. The more we unboxed and asked” What is this guy talking about?” We realized he was a guy we wanted.
With the approval of Roly De Armas, a Phillies minor league manager who served as the USA team’s bullpen coach, USA Baseball requested that Williams be released to play for the United States. American team, which the Phillies granted.
Even so, Williams’ role with Team USA was not to be significant. He joined a team that included former major leaguers Matt Kemp, Todd Frazier, Jon Jay and Logan Forsythe as well as a host of top prospects like Red Sox center fielder Jarren Duran, Red Sox first baseman Triston Casas and track and field shortstop Nick Allen.
“Even in the exhibition game, seeing my name on that programming card with all these guys, it was like, ‘Holy (cow), is this real? “Williams said.
Initially, Williams was to be primarily a bench player who started against left-handed pitchers.
As fate would have it, Nicaragua launched southpaw Carlos Teller in Team USA’s opener, giving Williams a chance to contribute immediately. He reached base out of first place five times that night and remained Team USA’s starting left fielder and leadoff batter for the rest of qualifying.
Overall, Williams hit .444/.500/.778 with a double, triple, home run, six RBIs and six runs scored in five games for Team USA, helping him stay undefeated and clinch a berth. at the Summer Olympics. In Team USA’s 4-2 win over Venezuela that secured their place at the Tokyo Games, he scored the deciding run after starting a rally with a two-out single in the fifth.
The performance put Williams front and center. He had the most all-around bases of any Team USA prospect, and only Frazier had higher OPS.
“He was a great find for us, a pleasant surprise,” Seiler said. “He’s just a good baseball player. We felt blessed and blessed to have him on the team.
It was just the beginning of the craziest few days of Williams’ life. On June 5, he helped Team USA earn a berth at the Olympics. On June 6, he returned from Florida to Allentown, Pennsylvania. On June 7, he was called up to the majors.
When Williams received the phone call from Lehigh Valley manager Gary Jones informing him that he was going to the big leagues, he was on the subway in New York en route to a Brooklyn Nets NBA playoff game with his teammate Mickey Moniak.
“He said we’re giving you your outright release…because you’re going in the big leagues,” Williams said. “And then the phone call was cut off.”
Williams had to wait to get out of the subway to call back Jones and Phillies farm manager Josh Bonifay. In the meantime, he and Moniak celebrated on the train, in full view of onlookers.
“We got off the train and were like, ‘I wonder what everyone was thinking?’ “Williams said. “We hugged, we clapped our hands, we were both like we were crying.”
Williams showed up to the Phillies on June 8, entered the fifth inning as a pinch hitter, and laid down a bunt single against Drew Smyly for his first hit of his first batting career. He made his first career start the following night and, with the Phillies trailing 1-0 and until their final out, hit a two-run homer against Braves closer to Will Smith late in the ninth. .
Many factors account for Williams’ immediate success. Above all, he is quick to credit his experience with Team USA for easing his transition to the majors.
“All the winning at all costs, I think that’s what really stood out for me,” Williams said. “Because in the minor leagues sometimes I don’t want to say we forget about it, but it’s not the priority to win. And so I think that was the most important thing, to do that and then come here where it’s winning at all costs. I was doing it for a week and come here and do it, it was perfect.
Now, Williams finds himself in the Phillies’ current and future plans. He started at shortstop, third base and center field and also played second base and right field. With right fielder Bryce Harper and second baseman Jean Segura leaving Tuesday’s game with injuries, in addition to shortstop Didi Gregorius suffering a rehabilitation setback with an elbow injury, Williams’ versatility became essential for the Phillies.
Only a few months ago, he was an afterthought in the Phillies organization. Now, after everything that’s happened in the past two weeks, he’s a player the team can’t live without.
“He’s done a great job of working and developing since we drafted him and every year he seems to get better,” Fuld said. “We saw the defensive versatility, we saw the offensive progression. He’s so valuable and guys who can play multiple positions like that productively, they save lives.
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