For major-league success, Phillies' Nick Williams has applied minor-league lessons
"How do you ever know when you're actually ready?" he said.
MIAMI — As Nick Williams trotted toward third base, after hitting a ball 402 feet to the opposite field against a lefthanded pitcher, Derek Dietrich had something to say. The third baseman had played inside cavernous Marlins Park for five seasons. He caught Williams' attention, mid-stride.
"Dude," Dietrich told Williams, "I've never seen a lefty ever do that here."
Williams shook his head and smiled. He stepped on third base, slapped coach Juan Samuel's hand, and glided to home plate. Williams is 23, and his first three weeks in the majors generated a confidence not frequently seen around the Phillies this season. He swings hard. He swings often.
For three weeks, he has looked capable of meeting major-league challenges.
Earlier this season, while still at triple-A Lehigh Valley, Williams chatted with some baseball people. He had on his mind a question, one that bothered him, and one that no one in the game has truly ever answered.
"How do you ever know when you're actually ready?" Williams said.
This past week, after collecting six extra-base hits in five days, Williams laughed as he recounted the exchange.
"I always thought whenever I would get the call," Williams said, "I would just go up there and compete the best I could."
It's a good question. "A crazy question," Williams said. Has he thrived in his first three weeks because the Phillies promoted him at the right time, when they deemed him able to survive the big-league rigors? Or was he ready weeks ago? He had played 203 games at triple A when the Phillies summoned him. No one will deny that Williams had — and still has — pieces of his game that need improvement. But no one knows how a young player will react when faced with the highest level of baseball.
"We'll have to watch him," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "I'm not going to say a whole lot about it right now. I don't want to jinx myself. I just want to keep watching him continue to play and be aggressive at the plate."
Ultimately, it does not matter. A few extra weeks in the majors for Williams would not have altered the Phillies' season, and it would not have changed Williams' current trajectory. The Phillies have long been intrigued by Williams' pure physical talent. He has the power stroke to drive a ball the other way, as he did in Miami. He runs fast. But he is not without holes — expect teams to attack Williams, a low-ball hitter, with high fastballs. He will have to adjust.
"I didn't think I would have as much success as I've had," Williams said. "It's still early. You never know in this game, especially when you're young. I'm going to go through stuff eventually. In the minor leagues, I've been through stuff. Injuries, adversity. I don't know. I fight. I'm just a fighter. I've always been a fighter."
And he has learned a little bit about patience.
"I remember when I was first drafted," Williams said. "I was like, 'I'll be in the minors for a year. Then the big leagues. I think.' "
Williams, during his first few seasons in Texas' system, joked with his hitting coach, Justin Mashore, that he could hit .240 or .250 if he was in the majors right then. There's more to it than that, Mashore said.
Last season, Williams was headed for a September call-up, until he started thinking too much about it. Team officials said Williams did not have the right mind-set. Williams, this spring, acknowledged chasing the wrong priorities.
"I learned from different, immature mistakes," Williams said.
The Phillies conjured ways to motivate him. Dusty Wathan, the manager at triple A, showed Williams some old video earlier this season. They were clips of Williams jogging or trotting out of the batter's box.
"Just actually seeing it," Williams said, "I'm like, 'Man, that wasn't very good. I don't want to look like that.' "
Williams has two brothers, 12 and 10 years old, and Wathan thought of them.
"If your little brothers are watching you," Wathan told Williams, "then they'll start doing it."
"That always stuck with me after he said that," Williams said.
Williams has hit, but he has impressed his teammates with the energy he provides. Vince Velasquez dubbed Williams "a freak."
"You see little grounders, and that dude is running a four-flat to first base," Velasquez said. "That's what we all like to see. Something like that really motivates you — he shows he's a hard-working kid."
There will be trials for Williams. This game is full of players who had a good week, a good month, a good season — but nothing more. Williams is aware.
"This game is extremely humbling," he said.
That is an admission he might not have made before his last bit of seasoning in the minors.
For two youngsters, lost chances
The prolonged injuries to Phillies Cesar Hernandez, Howie Kendrick, and Aaron Altherr are reminders of lost opportunities for a couple of younger players. Had Roman Quinn and Jesmuel Valentin been healthy, they probably would have filled the gaps instead of older players such as Daniel Nava, Andres Blanco, and Ty Kelly.
Quinn, 24, has not played since May 28 because of an injury to a ligament in his non-throwing elbow. He is not yet ready for game action. Valentin, 23, impressed team officials in spring training but underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in late May. Both prospects are on the 40-man roster.
Updates on three
1. Tommy Joseph: It's not a good trade market for sellers, especially those selling a first baseman. If the Phillies cannot deal Joseph, how will they manage a situation with Rhys Hoskins in the majors? That remains to be seen.
2. Daniel Nava: He won't fetch much in a trade, and most contenders can fill the role of fifth outfielder internally. But Nava, at 34, has shown how valuable a reserve player he is. He should fit somewhere.
3. Cornelius Randolph: The former first-round pick is having a quietly decent season at high-A Clearwater. The problem for most scouts is: What does he project as? Some see him as a first baseman.