Baseball

Former American High star player Darnell Sweeney feels right at home in the majors

Philadelphia Phillies’ Darnell Sweeney watches after popping out to second in the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, in Miami. At right is Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto.
Philadelphia Phillies’ Darnell Sweeney watches after popping out to second in the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, in Miami. At right is Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto. AP

He’s now known as one of two prospects the Los Angeles Dodgers traded to get Chase Utley, a six-time All-Star second baseman ... or as the rookie whose first major-league hit was a home run, spoiling Justin Nicolino’s attempt at a shutout in the Philadelphia Phillies’ 5-2 win over the Marlins on Saturday night.

But in 2009, Darnell Sweeney didn’t have a huge reputation as a player. The University of Miami offered the speedy shortstop a scholarship, but it came late in his senior year at Miami American High — he had committed to the University of Central Florida by then.

FIU also offered a scholarship — in fact, it was the largest offer he had received monetarily — but Sweeney preferred the coaching staff at UCF.

The Marlins were also rejected by Sweeney — they drafted him in the 41st round in 2009. But with that low a draft pick, the financial slot was not going to be enough to keep Sweeney from college.

Six years later — this past Thursday night, in fact — Sweeney made his major-league debut, playing for the Philadelphia Phillies as a pinch-hitter and popping out in his only at-bat. Fittingly, Sweeney’s debut came in Miami and against the Marlins, with his wife, parents and brother among his fans in the stands.

“Everything came full circle,” said his father, Darnell Sweeney Sr., a native of the Virgin Islands who coached his son from age 4 until high school on the Miramar Angels travel team.

Sweeney Sr. taught his son to be a switch-hitter, spending close to an extra hour at practice each day, repeating every drill his son had done from his natural right side, then doing it from the left.

Another lesson taught was about versatility. Sweeney Sr. wanted his son to learn as many different positions as possible, enhancing his value to any prospective team.

As it turned out, those were sage pieces of advice. Sweeney, 24, has a lot to offer the Phillies, hitting from both sides of the plate, providing speed — he was leading the Triple-A Pacific Coast League with 32 steals at the time of his trade — and playing second base, shortstop, third base and the outfield.

Sweeney was also a PCL All-Star this year, ranking eighth in doubles (32), ninth in runs (69) and ninth in hits (128).

“He’s a switch-hitter with some power,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said.

That power was in evidence Saturday night when Sweeney went deep.

“I was just trying to be a little spark plug in the lineup,” Sweeney said. “It was a great feeling to do it from of my parents, my brothers and sisters. It’s a great dream.”

Sweeney said Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon, a player he works out with in the offseason, jokingly offered to retrieve the home run ball for him as a keepsake — but at a steep price.

“He was trying to auction the ball, make me pay to get my ball back,” Sweeney said. “He’s a character.”

The asking price was $5,000. Sweeney refused, but the ball was in his locker room waiting for him at game’s end.

On Sunday, Sweeney got more good news — his first major-league start, opening the game in center field and going 0 for 1 with three walks in a 2-0 win over the Marlins.

Sweeney believes his best position might eventually be center field. He played shortstop in high school and college and played second base and center field in the minors this year.

But no matter what spot he plays, Sweeney said he is “pumped” to get this opportunity in the majors, especially the way it came about.

“Utley is a multiple-time All-Star,” Sweeney said. “The fact that [the Phillies] thought I was pretty good value in a trade for Utley — that gives weight to the whole situation. I’m blessed that it happened.”

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