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.

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

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A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

Zach Eflin gets no decision, but tosses 7 crisp innings in Phillies' win

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The return on the Phillies' $13.5 million investment in Clay Buchholz was about as poor as it gets, but if it keeps leading to starts like Sunday's out of rotation replacement Zach Eflin, nobody inside or outside the organization will complain.

Eflin was in cruise control Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, limiting the Braves to just one run on three hits over seven innings and keeping the Phillies in the game before their eighth-inning fireworks in their 5-2 win (see Instant Replay).

Eflin struck out only three batters but generated a lot of weak contact. There were six groundouts to first base and just as many soft pop-ups to the shallow outfield.

Whereas Buchholz's two outings with the Phillies resulted in 10 runs and 19 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings, Eflin's first two starts have yielded just three runs and nine baserunners in 12 innings.

"Just the other day we were talking about depth in the pitching rotation at Triple A and here is good evidence of what we have down there," a jovial Pete Mackanin said. "Eflin comes out of Triple A and pitches outstanding. That's a bonus for us.

"When he's got that bowling-ball sinker working, it's hard for a hitter not to worry about the inside part of the plate, which opens up the outer half."

Eflin worked quickly and kept the game moving. Eight of his 21 outs required two pitches or less.

"I felt really good today, I did a good job of getting ahead in the count and getting early contact, trusting my sinker and I stuck with that the whole game," Eflin said.

The lone run Eflin allowed was a seventh-inning solo home run by Matt Kemp, who broke his bat on a jam-job to left field his previous time up. The Phillies tied the game in the bottom half with three one-out singles, then exploded in the eighth inning with back-to-back-to-back homers by Cesar Hernandez, Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrera. 

Just like that, the Phillies completed their first series sweep of the young season, sending the Braves packing with a 6-12 record. The Phils, back to .500 at 9-9, are off Monday before beginning a three-game series vs. Miami.

The Phillies were also 9-9 last season but got there in a much different way, winning a lot of low-scoring, one-run games. The offense has been better this April and the starting pitching is coming around.

Last year when the Phillies were 9-9, they had been outscored by 23 runs. This year, they've outscored their opponents by seven.

"It does feel different," Mackanin said. "Who would have thought Cesar would hit four home runs the whole year? But there are a lot of good things going on. We'll just go from here and see what happens. Again, the big thing for me is that inventory at Triple A when we have a pitcher like Eflin coming up."

Some good things are happening at Triple A, where three pitchers have already earned call-ups and another, Nick Pivetta, is 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA through three starts. He's struck out 24 while walking two. 

It's another illustration of how many of their recent trades the Phillies have won. 

Eflin was acquired in December 2014 for one season of a 36-year-old Jimmy Rollins. 

Pivetta was acquired from the Nationals two summers ago when the Phillies had no leverage with Jonathan Papelbon but found a meaningful return anyway. 

And Joely Rodriguez, who picked up his first major-league win Sunday, was the piece the Phillies got back from Pittsburgh for Antonio Bastardo.

"Joely Rodriguez has really stepped up and done a great job for us," Mackanin said. "We originally considered him more of a long guy, but he is starting to prove to me that he can get big outs late in the game against certain hitters and he got a couple of big outs (today)."