PHILADELPHIA – Scott Kingery worried in April that the strained right hamstring that placed him on the injured list might sap his early-season mojo.
It has not.
His torrid hitting continued Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park, where he smacked a three-run home run to left field in the second inning of a 7-4 victory over the D-backs. It was Kingery’s third home run in the last two games, helping the Phillies maintain at least a share of first place in the National League East.
“I'd like to start on the development of Scott Kingery and how far he's come in one calendar year,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “We're now kind of expecting good, quality plate appearances from him every time he walks up to the plate. He's swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone. When he gets a pitch to hit, he's doing damage or he's taking a great swing and fouling a pitch back.
“He's put in a lot of hard work. We asked a lot of him last year. I just think it's worth noting that he's been sensational for us so far this year.”
Kingery batted .406 with four doubles, two home runs, six RBIs and a 1.176 OPS in 35 plate appearances before he landed on the injured list on April 20. He rejoined the team on May 19 and is batting .289 with six doubles, one triple, five home runs, 12 RBIs and a .917 OPS in 80 plate appearances since.
His rookie struggles seem like a long time ago. He batted .226 with eight home runs, 35 RBIs and a .605 OPS in 484 plate appearances last season. But he is simply hitting the ball much better. His average exit velocity has jumped from 85.5 mph to 89.7 mph this season. His hard-hit rate has jumped from 30.7 percent to 40.3 percent.
“I look at my swing from last year and, to be honest, there's minimal differences,” Kingery said. “I think that it's all just the confidence coming this year, the approach and the mindset coming up to bat now. I think that's what's changed and what's letting me have good success now.
“Last year, there was a lot of crazy stuff going on -- playing all those positions, learning to hit Major League pitching, just everything that went on, my brain was just like, going and going and going. I didn't have a second to kind of relax. After the season, I took some time, just forgot about baseball for a little bit and it just felt different coming back for a second year. So it's a lot more confidence."
Kingery continues to play a lot of different positions. He has started 13 games in center field, eight at third base, three at shortstop and two at second base. He is playing center field at the moment, with Andrew McCutchen lost for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee and rookie Adam Haseley on the shelf with a strained left groin. He will continue to play center, at least until Roman Quinn returns from the injured list, which could happen as soon as this week.
If he plays and performs, Kingery could play regularly at third base. Maikel Franco is batting .157 with five doubles, two home runs, 10 RBIs and a .464 OPS in 123 plate appearances since April 27.
Maybe Kingery could move up in the lineup, too. He might look good in the leadoff spot, and it would give the team’s hottest hitter an extra plate appearance or two over the course of a week.
“I think we'll consider everything,” Kapler said. “At the same time, it's hard not to keep him right where he is. There's a lot of value in the comfort he may be feeling right now. It's part of the reason he played center field instead of playing third base today. It doesn't mean he's not going to play quite a bit at third base going forward, but the reason we left him in center field is because we wanted him to be as comfortable as possible right now and continue his success.”
Of course, it’s not always smooth sailing. Kingery laughed after the game about his faceplant trying to catch Carson Kelly’s ball hit into the gap in the fourth. Kingery had no chance to make the play, but still tried.
“I thought, 'I might as well extend my arm out there and maybe I'll catch it,'” he said. “But I was like 20 feet away from it, so ... It happens, you know?"
Phillies right-hander Jake Arrieta allowed three runs in six innings to move to 6-5 with a 4.31 ERA. Left fielder Jay Bruce saved a couple runs with a nice diving catch in the third inning.
Hector Neris pitched a perfect ninth to earn his 14th save. If the All-Star Game was Wednesday, Neris might be a Phillies’ representative.
“Hector Neris has also, for a quality calendar year, been off-the-charts good,” Kapler said.