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March 21, 2016

Phillies Notes: Hunter hoping long journey back to big leagues is near

LAKELAND, Fla. – At least Cedric Hunter has Moonlight Graham beat.

The 28-year-old Hunter, a non-roster outfielder in camp with the Phillies, was rated the No.1 prospect in the San Diego Padres system nine years ago. But the former third-round pick played in just six big league games with San Diego, never started one, and received all of four at-bats.

The third time he stepped into a big league batter’s box – on April 5, 2011 at Petco Park – he singled off of San Francisco’s Guillermo Mota for his first (and only) major league hit.

“That’s my moment in the big leagues right now,” he said.

And even that one is a bit of a bummer. He is one of the rare players who never even retrieved the ball as a piece of personal achievement and memorabilia for his mantle.

“I never got the ball,” Hunter said Monday, after playing solid defense in right field and hitting a two-run home run in the Phillies 4-3 win over the Detroit Tigers. “Never got the ball. They threw it in the dugout, told me they were going to do the print on it and everything. Never got it.”

Are you serious, Cedric?

“I think it’s the way it should be,” Hunter said. “If I get up there again, I want it to be with my home team. The Phillies treat me really well and I’m very comfortable in this organization, the coaches and the staff. I’m just excited for this.”

The Georgia native may have a real chance of finally finding solid ground in a big league clubhouse. Hunter is hitting .302 (13-for-43) with a .340 OBP, three home runs and four doubles in 15 games this spring.

And he happens to play a position the Phillies are in desperate need of finding some depth. Fellow outfielders Aaron Altherr (wrist surgery) and Cody Asche (right oblique) are out indefinitely and even Opening Day shoo-in Odubel Herrera (bruised finger) has raised some concerns since he’s been out of the lineup for eight straight games.

Both Hunter and David Lough are trying to prove to the front office that they can be counted on, along with Rule 5 outfielder Tyler Goeddel. The Phils brass will almost certainly raid the waiver wire in search of outfielders in the next two weeks as other teams trim their own rosters.

“I like his aggressive approach and he made a nice catch in center field,” manager Pete Mackanin said, referring to the Miguel Cabrera-crushed ball Hunter tracked down at the wall in right-center. “He’s a nice looking player. He and Lough are battling it out. I like both of them a lot.”

“I’m not trying to think about that,” Hunter said of the competition for a job. “I know the opportunity is there. But I haven't gotten it yet. It hasn’t been told to me. So in my eyes, I’m not going to start assuming because it could affect you on the field.”

Hunter has been through too much to get his hopes up too early. The Phillies are his fifth major-league organization since the Padres placed him on waivers in the fall of 2011, a few short weeks after he finally made his major league debut.

He’s been to a lot of ballparks in a lot of cities in the last four years – from Memphis to Akron, to Columbus, Ohio and Jackson, Miss., too – that he’s not taking his place in the Phillies clubhouse for granted this spring.

“It’s every kid’s dream in that clubhouse, to get back to the majors,” Hunter said. “It’d definitely be a blessing. I feel like this round will be a lot better than the last.”

From a walk-off home run in the first week of games to a real opportunity to make the roster as the Phillies enter the final full week of Grapefruit League games, Hunter feels like he’s in a pretty good place in his career, better off for the journey he’s endured.

“It’s definitely something I didn’t think would happen in my life, but I think God puts certain things your life so you can grow from it,” he said. “I was 21 when I got up there and I definitely shouldn’t have been up there at the time, it just kind of worked out that way. I feel like now I’m a lot more mature, I’ve learned a lot from a lot of the veterans that I’ve been around in major league camp. It’s a different feeling.”

And hopefully, he’ll get a chance to collect the ball should he hit his first big league home run in 2016.

Hernandez Returns

Veteran relief pitcher David Hernandez made his first appearance in a Grapefruit League game since March 1 on Monday.

The pitching line may not have been ideal, but his health was after getting through the seventh inning of the Phillies 4-3 win over the Tigers. Hernandez allowed back-to-back extra-base hits – a double and a triple – with one out before striking out former Phillie John Mayberry Jr. and then inducing a ground out to limit the damage to one run.

“I felt good,” said Hernandez, who had pitched in two minor league games in the last week after battling triceps tendinitis earlier this month. “Fastball command wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be, but that’s a part of it. Pretty pleased with my off-speed stuff.”

“I liked what I saw,” Mackanin said of Hernandez, whose fastball was between 92-95 according to the ballpark radar gun. “He had some velocity and then when he threw the breaking ball, that was huge. It was good to see him back, healthy. I liked what I saw.”

Hernandez was the Phillies lone major league free agent signing this winter when he came aboard on a one-year, $3.9 million deal … one that made him the favorite to open the season as the team’s closer after Ken Giles was traded away less than two weeks later.

Whether or not Andrew Bailey or anyone else has managed to jump over him for the ninth-inning job in the last month is still unknown.

“We’re in the process of trying to figure that out,” Mackanin said of the closer vacancy. “It was good to see Hernandez throw out there with pretty good stuff. We still have time to make that decision and it might take until the end of spring, but we’ll eventually make it.”