PHILADELPHIA — The popped corks came after the base hit, the base hit came after the opportunity and the opportunity came after the loose screw. Such has been the unlikely, unexpected chain of baseball circumstances that has begun to build the legend of Johan Rojas.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Rojas was saying Wednesday. “I didn’t think it would be a possibility.”
What became possible Tuesday was born in July, when Rojas was content to continue his rise through the Phillies’ minor-league system in Reading, still unsure if anyone was really noticing. That’s when it was found that a long-ago surgical screw was wobbly, causing pain in Cristian Pache’s right elbow.
The Phillies in need of a quick outfield replacement, they promoted Rojas. The opportunity presented, Rojas, 22, dazzled in center field and was not over-matched with the bat. The situation settled, he was too valuable to demote. And by Tuesday, there he was in the 10th inning with one out and – with the gift of irony – Pache on second base and the Phillies in position to defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates.
David Bednar threw a 1-2 fastball and Rojas muscled a grounder over second base. Pache, who was running for Nick Castellanos, sprinted home for the walk-off run, the Phillies were in the playoffs and the once unlikely hero would quickly find himself at the bottom of a pile of teammates he’d rarely known before mid-summer.
Baseball happens quickly.
“The goal has always been to play in the big leagues, no doubt about it,” Rojas said. “But at that time, I was very focused on playing in Double-A, staying healthy, playing hard and helping that team win. So to be able to this, it’s unbelievable. No, it’s pretty, pretty amazing – an amazing feeling to have.”
If the story ended there, it would have been enough to squeeze into Phillies lore, the prized prospect skipping a minor-league step and providing the hit that sent the club into a postseason for just the 16th time since 1883. Naturally, though, there was more. There’s always more. Because not only was Tuesday the first time Rojas’ parents – Yaniris and Juan – had ever seen him in a major-league game, but it was the first time the Dominicans had ever been in the United States at all. They were there, with Rojas’ brother, sister, three friends from his old neighborhood and his son, Johan Rojas Jr., as part of an excursion boosted by the Phillies for a simpler reason. Technically, they were gathered to celebrate his winning of a Paul Owens Award as the top minor-league hitter in the organization.
The champagne celebration for the game-winning hit was a bonus.
“It was a very special moment, especially with my mom,” Rojas said. “She would look at me, hug me, look at me again, hug me again, because she was amazed. She was amazed that I was actually here and she was able to witness this whole thing with her own eyes.”
By then, there was not much more that Phillies fans would need to see to understand that the best minor-league hitter in the organization would never play another inning outside of the major leagues. Though he had played just 56 games with the Phils – Rob Thomson picking his spots – Rojas was hitting .304 and, more, was playing center field with a panache unseen in Philadelphia since Garry Maddox was working in Veterans Stadium.
“It makes me feel really good when people say that,” he said. “In a way, it shows that my work is paying off and it is paying off for the benefit of the team by winning games.”
With Thomson announcing before he’d ever played an inning that Rojas could be as good a defensive outfielder as there is in the game, the Phillies always believed the kid to be a prospect. They just didn’t know how comfortably and successfully he would fit into a lineup, an outfield and a winning clubhouse. As for Rojas, he had one solution.
“I wasn’t sure how it would go, but all I knew was that I would give 100 percent,” he said. “And I would do that no matter where I play. I am always going to try to do my best and try to help the team win games.”
Though he has time for decisions, Thomson did all but confirm Wednesday that Bryce Harper would be the full-time postseason first baseman. That would drag Kyle Schwarber out of left to be the designated hitter, opening outfield opportunities. With the way he defends, Rojas is almost certain to start most playoff games.
“I will do whatever I can do to help the team win,” he said. “Wherever they need me to play, I will. It doesn’t matter, I am going to be there for the team.”
That’s what he did Tuesday, supplying the postseason-clinching hit, then celebrating the moment with his teammates before reuniting with his friends and family from the Domincan Republic.
“They like it here,” he said. “They like everything they’ve seen in Philadelphia. And they are going to stay here now until we win a championship.”
It’s just what can happen when a screw comes loose and one thing leads to another.
Contact Jack McCaffery at email@example.com
Source: Berkshire mont