Tim Tebow hits home run in 1st at-bat as Mets minor leaguer

Tim Tebow hits home run in 1st at-bat as Mets minor leaguer

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Of course he did.

Tim Tebow hit a home run in his first official at-bat as a New York Mets minor leaguer, a charmed start Thursday night for a popular yet polarizing athlete who seems to have a knack for these remarkable moments.

Playing a sport where many thought he didn't even belong in the batter's box, the former NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner launched a two-run drive for the Columbia Fireflies in a Class A South Atlantic League game against Augusta. It was his only hit in five plate appearances.

"All of my sports experiences helped me for moments like that," Tebow said.

With a 15 mph wind blowing out, Tebow hit a shot just over the 372-foot sign in left-center field. He stopped at second base, thinking it was a double -- but the ball hit a railing above the fence at the Bojangles Berm, and an umpire twirled his hand to indicate it was a homer.

Tebow spent an hour in the batting cage before batting practice Thursday with the hitting coach hitting fastballs away to the opposite field. Then on the fourth pitch, he got one.

"It definitely felt good because that is something we worked on so much today," Tebow said laughing.

Tebow clapped and pumped his fist in the air as he rounded the rest of the bases in the second inning as the crowd, already going wild, went into a frenzy. His teammates rushed the dugout railing, waiting for him. He laughed when he talked about one of his teammates saying it was the best thing he had ever experienced.

"Special things happen to special people. And that was a special moment," Columbia manager Jose Leger said.

The 29-year-old Tebow played three seasons in the NFL, highlighted by a playoff touchdown pass in overtime that lifted the Denver Broncos over Pittsburgh. A two-time national champion at the University of Florida, he left football for broadcasting after the 2012 season.

Tebow later tried out with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, but got cut in training camp. He then decided to pursue a career in a sport he last played as a junior in high school, signing a minor league deal with the Mets.

Last fall, in the Instructional League, he also homered his first time up. But in spring training for the Mets, Tebow batted .148 in 27 appearances. He struck out eight times and didn't have an extra base hit or an RBI.

The lefty-hitting Tebow homered off Augusta lefty Domenic Mazza, a 22-year-old who had an 11-3 career record in the minors after playing at UC Santa Barbara. Mazza was the 666th pick in the 2015 draft.

In Tebow's second at-bat, he couldn't beat out a slow roller to the shortstop. He struck out the next three times up -- two of them looking.

"There will be a lot of highs and lows in this game. That's why you can't make too much of anything," Tebow said.

Columbia beat Augusta 14-7, with the Fireflies hitting three home runs.

Tebow was batting seventh for the Fireflies and starting in left field in a league that typically uses 21- or 22-year-olds early in their pro careers.

Tebow sort of fits that mold. He hasn't played organized baseball since his junior year of high school. He concentrated on football, winning the Heisman as a sophomore for Florida in 2007.

He then went to the NFL. In 2011, Tebow lifted the Broncos over the Steelers with an 80-yard TD pass on the first play of overtime. Tebow was traded to the New York Jets the next season, throwing only eight passes.

But maybe it's Columbia that suits Tebow well. With the Gators, he accounted for seven touchdowns, threw for 304 yards and ran for 120 more as Florida beat South Carolina about 3 miles away at Williams-Brice Stadium 51-31 in the 2007 game that cemented his Heisman Trophy campaign.

Columbia is embracing the man it once rooted against. Noelle Colligan stood in a line at least a dozen people deep to buy a new No. 15 Tebow Fireflies jersey. She became a Tebow fan watching his march to the 2007 Heisman Trophy. The University of South Carolina student put on the jersey before the game started.

Then, as Tebow came to the plate, she leaned over and told a friend with the wind blowing out and Tebow's amazing career so far, she just knew he would hit one out.

"It's just not who he is as an athlete. It's his whole character. It's what he believes. It's the good work he does," said Colligan, who volunteered in February with a local special needs prom put on by the Tim Tebow Foundation.

In the Fireflies merchandise shop called The Mason Jar, employees were restocking the racks with the Tebow jerseys well into the night.

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.”