October 5, 2022

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Playing hero 'everything I've ever dreamed of' for Palacios

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OAKLAND — Usually, when a highly regarded prospect gets his first callup to the big leagues it’s because he’s gone on a tear in the Minors, making it impossible for the organization to ignore him. But that wasn’t quite the case for Richie Palacios.

Palacios had an average start to the Minor League season that started to tail off as he neared his unexpected callup date. But as he proved yet again with a two-run, go-ahead double in the ninth inning to send the Guardians to a 3-1 victory over the A’s on Saturday afternoon at Oakland Coliseum, he apparently was saving those hits for when they’d matter most.

“It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of,” Palacios said. “Being able to be here with the guys, just enjoying it. I’m having a good time, and now winning makes it even more fun.”

Palacios was an intriguing player in Spring Training, his ability to move from the infield to the outfield making him especially valuable to the team. But he wasn’t quite ready to break camp with the big league squad.

So, Palacios began the year with Triple-A Columbus, picking up a few hits in his first couple of games before his bat cooled considerably. Then, the Guardians suddenly found themselves in a predicament when outfielder Steven Kwan experienced hamstring tightness and the club needed to add another outfielder to the active roster. Even though Palacios was hitting .232 with a .749 OPS in 14 games at the time, he was the obvious answer.

“He’s been swinging OK,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said the day Palacios was called up. “I don’t think it was like he was hitting .400 and it’s like, ‘We got to get the kid up here.’ But he’s a young, good prospect and hopefully he helps us win a couple games.”

Help the Guardians win games, he has.

It’s hard enough to be a rookie in your first week in the big leagues, trying to learn the ins and outs of how the daily routines work, handling the media and adjusting to a higher caliber of competition. But Palacios was already given a bigger challenge, as he was called on in his fifth big league game to pinch-hit for backstop Austin Hedges in the top of the ninth inning with two runners on and the game knotted at 1.

“I just go in there with my plan, sticking to it,” Palacios said. “Didn’t feel any added pressure. Just trying to do what I do in every at-bat. Put a quality at-bat together and hopefully get the next man up.”

In his first plate appearance of the day, Palacios laid off two sliders in the dirt from A’s righty Dany Jiménez before taking a heater for a called strike. With a 2-1 count, Palacios drove a four-seamer over the lower third of the plate deep into the outfield in left-center. A’s center fielder Cristian Pache, who was honored before the game for his 2021 Rawlings Gold Glove Award for his defense — a trait Palacios remembered from playing against Pache in the Minors, appeared to have a beat on the fly ball.

“He’s caught a couple of my balls like that in Triple-A, so I was like ‘Damn, hopefully he doesn’t get this one,” Palacios said, with a big grin.

This time, Pache came up empty-handed, the ball bouncing off the fence and allowing the tying and go-ahead runs to score. The Guardians dugout erupted in massive cheers, flooding onto the warning track in celebration — and no one showed more excitement than Hedges, the man pinch-hit for by Palacios.

“I mean, I’m here to win, man. These are my guys,” Hedges said. “We’ve just got so much youth here and so much inexperience, and to see them respond in big situations and big moments, it’s just so cool that the moment isn’t too big for them.”

Baseball is a largely unpredictable game, with the opportunity for anyone to become an unsung hero at any time. There’s no guarantee Palacios remains on the roster for the entire season, and there’s certainly no promise that he’ll continue to be one of the more consistent hitters in the lineup.

But for someone who wasn’t performing at his best in the Minors one week ago to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity that was thrown his way, it’s given the Guardians organization a taste of the valuable player he could become.

“He took a nice swing,” Francona said, “and because of that, everybody leaves smiling.”

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