Phillies prospect Nick Williams rides a bumpy road to maturity

Phillies prospect Nick Williams rides a bumpy road to maturity

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Unlike some of his fellow Phillies prospects, Nick Williams did not play winter ball this year.

The 2016 season was his first in the organization and when it was over …

“I needed to get away, you know, breathe and stop worrying about everything,” the 23-year-old outfielder said in a soul-baring interview Tuesday at Phillies camp.

Williams was one of the big guns, a must-have hitter, in the July 2015 trade that sent Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers.

The Phillies got four other prospects in the deal, catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitchers Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson.

They all played in the majors with the Phillies last year.

Williams did not.

He did not earn a look in the majors because, well, he could not conquer the opponent in Triple A.

That opponent was himself.

“This is a humbling game,” Williams said. “You need to respect it and go out and have fun.

“Last season I feel like I wasn’t allowing myself to have fun because I was thinking, ‘Big leagues, big leagues, big leagues.’ I was taking a lot of the fun away from it because I was putting too much pressure on myself. My approach was, ‘With this pitch, I can get to the big leagues,’ and that’s totally wrong.”

The pressure that Williams put on himself hampered his performance in the final weeks of the season. Over his final 31 games, he hit just .161 with a .180 on-base percentage. He struck out 45 times over that span and walked just once as his on-base percentage for the season tumbled to .287.

“I think it was all because I was trying too hard,” Williams said. “I felt like all my troubles went into the same thing and I became overaggressive.”

Williams used the offseason as a time to put some physical strength on his 6-3, 200-pound frame, reflect on his 2016 season and contemplate how he can get better in 2017. During his time of reflection, he came to conclusion that his problems in 2016 were self-inflicted. That includes the two times he was benched for not hustling.

“All of the guys that I was traded with ended up in the big leagues except me,” Williams offered. “But I realize that they were ready and I wasn’t.

“Last year was a huge learning experience for me — new organization, going to Triple A — and I did some dumb things, some immature things.

“I got benched for not running out a ball. I look back and I might have thought it was harsh, but it was my fault. I should have run the ball out. That’s what I call not respecting the game. It sucked, but I had to take the punishment. I did it. It was my fault.

“That’s why I think it was good for me to just go home and breathe. I had a lot of time to think about all the things I did right and all the things I did wrong and I know what I need to improve on.”

Despite Williams’ poor finish last year, the Phillies remain high on his potential and still believe he can be an impact bat in the majors. He did hit .303 with a .354 on-base percentage, 17 homers, 55 RBIs and a .845 OPS as a 21-year-old in Double A in 2015. He did hit .258 with 13 homers and 64 RBIs as a 22-year-old first-time Triple A player in 2016.

“On July 29, Nick was hitting about .290 with a .320 on-base and a .460 slugging percentage as a 22-year-old in Triple A,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “If the season had ended right there, Nick Williams would be all over Top 100 prospects lists, all over the Internet and, frankly, he may have already reached the big leagues.

“That doesn’t mean that August didn’t happen, because it did — he really struggled in August. But what this kid did for the first four months of the minor-league season last year was very impressive, particularly given his age and where he was doing it.

“Obviously he needs to prove that what happened in August is not a trend and get back to doing what he did for the first four months, but this is a talented kid on both sides of the ball. He can run, he can throw, he can hit with power, he will need to, hopefully, improve his walk rate and his plate discipline, but we’re still very keen on his future. I think he’s got a bright future.”

Like many others in camp, Williams is a bit of a project for new hitting coach Matt Stairs. One of Stairs’ goals is to improve the team’s on-base percentage by stressing the concept of having a plan at the plate and not giving away at-bats.

“I gave away a ton of at-bats last year by being overaggressive,” Williams said.

A year ago, there was legitimate hope within the organization that Williams might be ready to hold down a corner outfield job by the start of this season. That has not happened and the team has had to plug those spots with veterans Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. Both are on short-term contracts, so a spot might open right back up for Williams in April 2018.

It’s up to him to prove he’s ready by putting together a consistent and productive season at Triple A.

And armed with the lessons he learned about himself last season, he might just do that.

“I want to get to the big leagues as fast as I can,” Williams said. “But I know I need to be a complete player. I believe I can be that consistent player, be a good all-around player and a good teammate, but I know I have to take it one day at a time.

“What can I do today? That’s got to be my approach.”

Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

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Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

NEW YORK -- Aaron Judge circled the bases for the 50th time this season, breaking Mark McGwire's major league record for home runs by a rookie, and returned to the Yankees dugout to exchange handshakes, hugs and high-fives with excited teammates.

And then, he walked up the steps and back onto the field.

Embarrassed by the attention, he managed four short waves with his right hand before heading back to the bench just three seconds later.

"They kind of told me: `You got to go out there. You got to go out there,'" he would later recall. "First curtain call. I hope it was a good one."

Judge had his second straight two-homer game in an 11-3 rout of Kansas City on Monday. On an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, the Yankees won for the 16th time in 22 games during a playoff push that earned no worse than a wild card.

The 6-foot-7, 25-year-old slugger tied McGwire's 1987 mark with a two-run drive to right-center off Jakob Junis (8-3) in the third inning that put New York ahead 3-0, driving a 93 mph high fastball 389 feet about a half-dozen rows into the right field seats (see full recap).

Russell makes food run, Cubs beat Cards to near clinch
ST. LOUIS -- Say cheese!

Addison Russell and the Chicago Cubs were all smiles after moving within a victory of another division title Monday night.

Russell hit a three-run double in the first inning, then made a food run for a fan in enemy territory while the Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 10-2. Chicago can wrap up the division with a win Tuesday against the Cardinals or a loss by Milwaukee against Cincinnati.

Russell helped the Cubs get to starter Luke Weaver (7-2) early, then made some friends out of rival fans. After diving into the stands chasing a foul ball down the third-base line and spilling a man's tray of chips, Russell emerged from the dugout a few innings later with a plate of nachos and delivered it to the fan. Russell stopped to take a selfie before heading back to play shortstop.

"That was pretty entertaining," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said (see full recap).

Donaldson, Blue Jays stop Red Sox winning streak at 6
BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox would like to get the AL East wrapped up quickly so they can start resting some banged-up players.

Josh Donaldson homered and drove in three runs, powering the Toronto Blue Jays past the first-place Red Sox 6-4 on Monday night.

Boston's six-game winning streak was snapped and its magic number to clinch a second straight division title remained at three. The Red Sox lead the second-place New York Yankees, who beat Kansas City earlier in the day, by four games with six remaining.

But the most important thing for the Red Sox was the loss of two key players to injuries. For how long? They don't know yet.

Eduardo Nunez and Mookie Betts both left the game early. Nunez aggravated a right knee injury that sidelined him for 13 games, and Betts came out with pain in his left wrist (see full recap).

Rangers fall to Astros, wild-card hopes fading
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Marwin Gonzalez had four hits and three RBIs as the AL West champion Houston Astros beat Texas 11-2 on Monday night, putting the Rangers on the brink of elimination in the wild-card race.

Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, the American League leader with 199 hits and a .348 batting average, left in the eighth inning after he was hit by a 95 mph fastball. The team said X-rays were negative and Altuve had a bruised forearm.

Gonzalez had two hits and scored twice in an eight-run fourth, including a two-run single that chased starter Andrew Cashner (10-11). Gonzalez later hit his 23rd homer, a solo shot in the sixth.

Collin McHugh (4-2) struck out six while throwing 112 pitches in five innings. The right-hander is 15-0 with a 2.94 ERA in 19 starts in September or October during his four seasons with the Astros (see full recap).

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

BOX SCORE

Before beginning a season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeouts Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re a left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year," (see story)

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five [reliable] guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”