As a long-time catcher, Jake Fox knows all about getting beat up. But if you're going to get battered and bruised this is the way to do it.
Fox now spends more time as a designated hitter than a catcher, but the Somerset DH still came out of a three-game series with Southern Maryland in pretty rough shape, thanks to the celebratory dogpile.
It was a weekend unlike any Fox, or any other player, is likely to see again soon. Three times, Fox came up with a chance to get a walk-off, game-winning hit. All three times, he delivered, providing three straight game-winners. And in response, his teammates pounded him with pats on the back and some well-timed, good-natured punches of celebration.
"You have to brace yourself," Fox said. "You have to cover up your ribs. It was kind of funny. By Monday I needed the offday to recover. It never hurt so good."
As surprising as it is that Fox came through 3-out-of-3 times, the odds of even getting the chance were much more infinitesimal. For Fox to do so, he needed the Patriots to be at home, be involved in a tie or close game where Somerset was trailing in the last inning. And he needed to come to the plate at the right time.
On Friday night, it was pretty simple. Fox came to the plate with the bases loaded in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth. His single drove in the game-winning run from third and set off a celebration just beyond first base where Fox was pummeled by his teammates congratulating him.
On Saturday, Fox had to wait a little longer. He came to the plate with the bases loaded in the 11th inning and responded with a single that drove in the game-winning run.
On Sunday, Southern Maryland did everything they could to avoid giving Fox another chance for heroics. He came to the plate in the ninth inning with a runner on third in a 1-1 game with a chance to add to the legend, but the Blue Crabs walked him intentionally. Fox got another chance when he came up to lead off the bottom of the 11th with the game still tied at one.
For all the talk about staying in yourself and not trying to do too much, here was a situation that called for grabbing the bat and taking a massive hack.
"If you think I wasn't trying to hit a home run, you're wrong," Fox said.
Fox overswung on the first pitch and fouled it off. He stepped out of the box, calmed himself down and strung together a better rest of the at-bat, fouling off one pitch and taking two balls. On a 2-2 count, Jim Ed Warden hung a slider and Fox got a good cut at it. A little wind helped the ball over the wall, giving Fox a chance to realize what he had done as he rounded first. He raised his right arm in the air and quickly circled the bases to meet all of his teammates at home plate for a surreal celebration. Three games, one hero.
"It finally sank in a little bit yesterday," Fox said two days after his third walk-off hit. "It was so surreal. How many times does a player get the chance to do that?"
It was the biggest highlights of what's been a solid season for Fox.
Sitting And Waiting
Just two years ago, Fox spent nearly three months of the season in the big leagues with the Orioles as a backup catcher/first baseman/left fielder/pinch hitter. It was a role he also filled in stints with the Cubs (2007 and 2009) and A's (2010). In no way does Fox begrudge his big league time, but one advantage of going to the Atlantic League is it gave Fox a chance to get regular at-bats. This year will be the first since 2008 that he will get 400 at-bats. Not coincidentally, Fox was hitting .310/.384/.565.
"This is the first season since 2009 when I've had consistent ABs and been able to get my swing back," Fox said. "It's felt pretty good. I've had an oppotunity to play consistently for four months, I feel I'm playing about as well as I'm capable of playing."
In many ways Fox's versatility has been a curse for him at the big league level. His reputation has been as a hitter with solid power (he carries a lifetime .515 career slugging percentage in the minors) who is able to play both corner infield spots, both corner outfield spots and catcher, but with defensive limitations at all five. So he seemed to fit the role of a utility bat, but as a power hitter, Fox found it hard to keep his swing in shape.
"I think the hardest job in baseball is coming off of the bench. Usually when you pinch hit, you're behind in the game. The other team has guys who eat innings and guys who hold leads. You get the guys who are holding leads," Fox said.
Fox hit .237/.288/.435 over the 489 at-bats of his big league career. He went to spring training with the Pirates in 2012, but he was released and got his first taste of independent league ball with Somerset before signing with the Phillies for a minor league stint late in the year. He returned to Somerset for a full season this year. If Fox has a frustration it's that he feels like he finally figured out how to be a bat off the bench just at that role went away.
"When I was in Chicago so was Daryle Ward. He and I would sit in dugout in Chicago and talk. I'd ask him 'what do I have to give up, what do I have to look for?'
"One thing he always told me that didn't sink in until later. He said to lay off the bastard pitch. You have to know your strike zone well enough and know which of his best pitches are strikes and which are balls. I've been a very aggressive hitter, so that was tough to learn. You have to give up trying to hit a home run off the bench."
Fox doesn't know if he'll ever get another shot at the major leagues, but his three walk-offs in three days has already paid off with another chance. The Diamondbacks signed him and assigned him to Triple-A Reno less than a week later.