Image credit: Luke Williams (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES—When Luke Williams stepped into the on-deck circle as a pinch-hitter at Dodger Stadium on Monday night, he made sure not to look back toward the stands.
More than 75 of Williams’ closest friends and family, many of them wearing T-shirts with a screen-printed image of his face across the front, packed the seats along the first-base line and went wild when he emerged from the dugout.
Williams, who grew up about an hour south of Dodger Stadium in Laguna Niguel, Calif., kept his focus on the pitcher. He knew that if he looked back and saw all the people who had helped him achieve his dream of reaching the major leagues, he would be too overwhelmed to complete the task at hand.
“I just made sure not to look at them,” Williams said. “I knew right when I looked at them I’d get pretty lost.”
The strategy worked. In his first career at-bat on the road, playing in a stadium he grew up going to as a child, with the all the people he loved most in attendance, Williams flared a single into center field.
“To be able to come home to California and play in front of family and friends, it’s pretty special,” Williams said. “Especially because I wouldn’t be here without a lot of them.”
Williams, a 24-year-old Phillies prospect, has been on a dizzying rise the last two weeks. After entering the season virtually unknown outside of the Phillies organization, he emerged as the surprise star of Team USA’s Olympic qualifying team at the start of this month and parlayed that performance into his first major league callup.
In a surreal five-day span from June 5-9, he led Team USA to the Olympics, received his first major league callup, got his first major league hit and hit a walkoff home run.
“He’s showed off a lot of his tool kit early,” Phillies general manager Sam Fuld said. “He’s done so much so quickly and it’s fun to see because he works hard and he’s a great kid.”
The Phillies drafted Williams in the third round in 2015 out of Dana Hills (Calif.) High and gave him a $719,800 signing bonus to forgo a Cal Poly commitment. He showed impressive athleticism and defensive versatility throughout the early part of his career, but his bat never provided much impact. In his first four seasons in the minors, Williams never hit above .245 outside of the Rookie levels and never posted a slugging percentage higher than .395.
After spending last year at the alternate training site, Williams came into 2021 a different player than the one last seen in the minors two years ago. He took part in major league spring training with the Phillies and impressed club officials with an improved approach aimed at putting the ball in play more. He continued to perform well at the alternate training site in April and opened the minor league season in May on a tear for Triple-A Lehigh Valley, batting .352/.439/.465 with four doubles, two triples and 15 runs scored in 18 games.
The performance caught the attention of the Phillies, who discussed calling him up even then, according to Fuld. It also caught the attention of USA Baseball executive director and CEO Paul Seiler.
“He may not have been a name prior to the qualifier, but as we were looking through potential players for (Team USA), one of the realities is we needed players who are performing right now,” Seiler said. “Being a top prospect doesn’t always mean you’re the best player right now. As we were looking at performance in the early part of the minor league season, Luke was on fire. The more we kind of unpacked it and said ‘What is this guy about?’, we realized he was a guy we wanted.”
With an endorsement from Roly De Armas, a Phillies minor league manager who served as Team USA’s bullpen coach, USA Baseball requested Williams be made available to play for Team USA, which the Phillies granted.
Even so, Williams’ role with Team USA wasn’t expected to be a big one. He joined a team that featured former major leaguers Matt Kemp, Todd Frazier, Jon Jay and Logan Forsythe as well as a host of top prospects like Red Sox center fielder Jarren Duran, Red Sox first baseman Triston Casas and Athletics shortstop Nick Allen.
“Even in the exhibition game, seeing my name on that lineup card with all those guys, it was like ‘Holy (cow), is this real?’ ” Williams said.
Initially, Williams was slated to primarily be a bench player who started against lefthanded pitchers.
As fate would have it, Nicaragua started lefthander Carlos Teller in Team USA’s opener, giving Williams a chance to contribute immediately. He reached base five times out of the leadoff spot that night and remained Team USA’s starting left fielder and leadoff hitter the rest of the qualifier.
Overall, Williams hit .444/.500/.778 with a double, a triple, a home run, six RBIs and six runs scored over five games for Team USA, helping it go undefeated and clinch a spot in the Summer Olympics. In Team USA’s 4-2 win over Venezuela that secured its spot in the Tokyo Games, he scored the deciding run after starting a rally with a two-out single in the fifth.
The performance put Williams front and center. He had the most total bases of any prospect on Team USA, and only Frazier had a higher OPS.
“He was a great find for us, a pleasant surprise,” Seiler said. “He’s just a good baseball player. We felt fortunate and lucky to have him on the team.”
That was just the start of the wildest few days of Williams’ life. On June 5, he helped Team USA clinch a spot in the Olympics. On June 6, he flew back from Florida to Allentown, Pa. On June 7, he got called up to the majors.
When Williams got the phone call from Lehigh Valley manager Gary Jones informing him he was going to the big leagues, he was on the subway in New York on his way to a Brooklyn Nets NBA playoff game with teammate Mickey Moniak.
“He said we’re giving you your outright release … because you’re going to the big leagues,” Williams said. “And then the phone call cut off.”
Williams had to wait to get out of the subway to call Jones and Phillies farm director Josh Bonifay back. In the interim, he and Moniak celebrated on the train, in full view of curious onlookers.
“We stepped off the train and we were like ‘I wonder what everyone was thinking?’ ” Williams said. “We hugged, we high-fived, we were both kind of like shedding some tears.”
Williams reported to the Phillies on June 8, entered in the fifth inning as a pinch-hitter and laid down a bunt single against Drew Smyly for his first hit in his first career at-bat. He made his first career start the following night and, with the Phillies trailing 1-0 and down to their final out, hit a walkoff two-run home run off Braves closer Will Smith in the bottom of the ninth.
There are many factors behind Williams’ immediate success. Above all else, he is quick to credit his experience with Team USA for smoothing his transition to the majors.
“The whole win at all costs, I think that was what really stuck with me,” Williams said. “Because in the minor leagues sometimes, I don’t want to say you forget about it, but it’s not the priority to win. And so I think that was the biggest thing, doing that and then coming here where it’s win at all costs. I was doing it for a week and come here and do it, it was perfect.”
Now, Williams finds himself a part of the Phillies present and future plans. He has started at shortstop, third base and center field and has also played second base and right field. With right fielder Bryce Harper and second baseman Jean Segura both leaving Tuesday’s game with injuries, in addition to shortstop Didi Gregorius suffering a setback in his rehab from an elbow injury, Williams’ versatility has become critical for the Phillies.
Only a few months ago, he was an afterthought in the Phillies organization. Now, after everything that has transpired the last two weeks, he’s a player the team can’t live without.
“He’s done a great job of working hard and developing since we drafted him and every year he’s seemingly getting better,” Fuld said. “We saw the defensive versatility, saw the progression offensively. He’s so valuable and guys who can play multiple positions like that in a productive way, they’re life-savers.”