Luke Williams’ jersey was soaked, his hair was drenched, and his eyes were already welling with tears when he left the Phillies dugout on Wednesday night to find his family waiting on the warning track.
He ended his second day in the big leagues with a watercooler emptied on his head after blasting a two-out, ninth-inning homer to give the Phillies a 2-1, walk-off win over the Braves. And his family — who booked flights to Philadelphia as soon as he was called Monday to the majors — had not only made it to Citizens Bank Park, they made it onto the field.
“It’s pretty incredible to have them here and be able to witness it with me in person,” Williams said. “It’s pretty special. You just can’t make this up. It’s pretty incredible.”
Williams helped Team USA secure a spot on Saturday in the Olympics, flew back to Allentown on Sunday, and was a major leaguer on Tuesday. The week was a whirlwind and then he stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run game and became the first Phillies player to hit a walk-off homer in his first career start.
“We kind of spoke it into existence,” said Zach Eflin, who watched on a TV in the trainer’s room after pitching six strong innings. “We were like ‘He’s going to do it right here. Captain America is going to end this right here.’ The next pitch, he clubbed it. It was awesome.”
The Phillies had not had a hit since Williams doubled in the fourth inning as 15 batters went down in order before Andrew McCutchen reached in the ninth on an eight-pitch walk. The listless lineup had some life. When Brad Miller popped up on the first pitch he saw, Williams was the team’s last hope.
He watched Will Smith’s first-pitch slider land for strike one. Williams said he knew Smith had a good slider but was expecting him to throw him an inside fastball. Sitting on the fastball, Williams said, actually helped him pick up the slider when Smith came back with another and it broke across the plate.
The homer landed in left field and Williams’ teammates stormed toward home plate. Bryce Harper told Williams that he felt the homer was coming. The Phils handed Williams the Panama hat they started wearing this week to celebrate home runs and pulled at his jersey before he disappeared into the dugout.
“For him to think that and believe that I can have an affect on this team is pretty special,” Williams said of Harper. “Just his support, everyone in that clubhouse. It’s awesome.”
The Phillies drafted Williams in the third round in 2015 as he was one of the final picks made by former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. The Phils quickly molded him into a super-utility player as he played every position in the minors except pitcher and catcher.
But Williams did not look like he was on the major-league radar until April, when he started his sixth minor-league season with a torrid stretch at triple A. It was enough for Team USA to invite Williams for its Olympic qualifying tournament, where he had eight hits in four games, and it was enough for the Phillies to bring him to the big leagues.
And it all led to him circling the bases on Wednesday night with his mouth agape after hitting a homer that he described as “indescribable.”
“It just adds to this whole journey,” Williams said. “It definitely hasn’t been the easiest journey, but this is pretty awesome.”
Williams’ parents, Mark and Jeannine, flew in Tuesday morning from Los Angeles. His sister, Sami, flew in from Iowa, where she plays softball for Iowa State, and his younger brother, Ike, flew in from Utah, where he’s a college student. His older brother, Jake, was stuck in Mexico because he didn’t have time to pass a COVID-19 test before flying to Philly.
“It takes a family to raise a ballplayer,” manager Joe Girardi said. “Big brothers help out. Sisters are always there for you. Mom and Dad are driving you all over the place. It always takes a family. I look back at my family and everyone helped in different ways. To me, when a player makes it, it’s like the whole family makes it. It’s just not the player. It’s a fantastic moment for his family.”
The Williams family arrived in time for Tuesday’s game, when Williams came off the bench for a pinch-hit bunt single. He dropped a drag bunt on the first pitch he saw after noticing that the Atlanta third baseman was playing deep. It worked.
He started Wednesday in center field, one of the many positions the Phillies feel comfortable playing him at, and had the team’s only two extra-base hits. Williams brought eight gloves to Philadelphia as he’s willing to do whatever Girardi asks. He proved to be a spark for two straight nights.
Girardi received a note this week from Mike Scioscia, who managed Williams last week for Team USA. Williams will be unable to play in the Olympics since he’s on a major-league roster. But Scioscia, the Delaware County native who managed the Angels to a World Series title, wanted to tell Girardi how impressed he was with the 24-year-old from Southern California.
Williams, Scioscia told Girardi, does everything right. That note is holding up.
“I’ve always considered Mike one of the best managers in the game,” Girardi said. “So coming from him is quite a compliment.”
The Phillies limped into the ninth inning as they played in front of yet another small crowd. In the past week, Citizens Bank Park has recorded three of its four all-time lowest attendances when operating at full capacity. The fan base seems tepid for a team that is still two games below .500 and hasn’t had a winning record since May 19.
If the Phillies needed a jolt, perhaps that’s what they received Wednesday night when Williams came through with the game on the line. And his family was there to see it.
“Just thinking about them and thinking about everything that my parents have done for me. It’s pretty awesome,” Williams said. “I don’t know if I’ll have words to describe that moment. It was pretty incredible, you know? I’m still trying to figure it all out.”