Rhyne Hughes lived a dream at Fenway Park on Saturday. The 26-year-old Orioles first baseman made his big-league debut one day after being called up from Triple-A Norfolk, and while he fell just short of producing a fairy-tale script—he saved that for Sunday—he did more than simply put his name in the record books. A one-time Rays farmhand who came to Baltimore last summer in the trade that sent Gregg Zaun to Tampa Bay, Hughes singled off of the Red Sox's John Lackey in his first two at-bats, the first driving home a run. His fifth and final at-bat of the contest was no less memorable, as the left-handed slugger faced Jonathan Papelbon with men on base and the game on the line. Hughes talked about his memorable introduction to the big leagues prior to Sunday afternoon’s game.
David Laurila: How did you find out about the call up?
Rhyne Hughes: We were playing in Charlotte, and after the game skip came in and talked to the team about some other stuff. Then he called me into his office and said, "Congratulations, you’re going to the big leagues." It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard anybody tell me. It was a really, really good night.
DL: How surprised were you to get the news?
RH: It wasn’t something I had thought about or been waiting for to happen. I was just trying to go out every day and play, and just kind of be ready whenever they were ready for me. It was a nice thing to hear.
DL: Was there ever a time in the minor leagues where you thought to yourself, "I’m not going to make it"?
RH: No, I don’t think it was ever anything like that, but I have had years where I’ve struggled. One of the worst years I’ve had in the minor leagues was back in Low-A, when I was playing in the Midwest League. It was just a bad year. It was my first full season and it was tough. At that point, the big leagues seemed like a long ways away. But after that, I just kind of became a totally different player. I had a lot more fun and worked a lot harder. In the last few years, I’ve felt like I’m getting closer and closer and I’m finally getting that chance.
DL: You were hit in the face by a pitch a few years ago. Did that impact your career at all?
RH: I think the only thing that happened there is that I got a concussion and had to miss the playoffs—the Double-A championship that year. Other than that, I don’t think I missed a beat. I missed the last 10 games of the regular season, after I got up to Double-A, but other than that, it was one of those things where if I would have talked about it to a lot of people, it might have got in my head and made me a little leery to step back in the box. But honestly, that offseason, after the injury, I was back with my old college coach—I went to do some inter-squads with them, just so I could see some live pitching. I stepped back in there and it was fine. I don’t feel like it has bothered me at all.
DL: What did it feel like to hear, "You’ve been traded"?
RH: That day I was in Durham, and I got to the field early and was about to go take some swings in the cage. Charlie Montoyo, my Triple-A manager in Durham, came over to me. There weren’t many people there and he said, "Hey, congratulations, you’re an Oriole." It was kind of a shock. It’s one of those things that was a surprise, because I didn’t have any inkling that I was going to be traded. I talked to a lot of guys, and after it settled in and I looked at the situation, it kind of turned out to be a blessing. Tampa may not have had any plans for me in the future and they basically traded me away to somebody who liked me and did have plans for me. I looked at it as a really good thing.
DL: When did it truly hit you that you were in the big leagues?
RH: Yesterday, when I got here. I called a lot of people on Friday night and I also had a lot of people calling me when they found out. I was talking to one of my best friends and said, "I don’t know how long I’ll be here, and nobody ever knows if they’ll get a chance to make it back if they get sent down, but once I get to the field for BP, and do my stretching, I’ll realize that I’m here. I made it here." And it really was unbelievable. Twenty minutes before the game, I’m on the field looking out at all the people and it’s like, "This is it. I’m here."
DL: Had you been to Fenway Park prior to last night?
RH: Never. I had never been to Boston, never been to Fenway, and to come here to play my first big-league game was just unreal. There’s not an empty seat in the house. The crowd is behind the Boston players, of course, but it was just a really neat experience to be playing my first big-league game here in Fenway Park.
DL: What did it feel like when you stepped into the box for the first time?
RH: I obviously had butterflies, and everything, before the game, and you always do before first at-bats. Even down in the minor leagues it’s the same way. But once I took a deep breath, like I always do, and stepped into the box, it was just kind of the same thing. The pitchers are better, obviously, because this is the highest level you’re going to get to, but once I stepped in, it felt natural.
DL: You swung at the first pitch you saw. How much of that was nerves?
RH: It really wasn’t. We had a runner on third and we’ve been going through a tough stretch trying to win games, and I had a chance to get the run in. I was just looking for a pitch early in the count to do something with to get the run in. [Lackey] threw a fastball down and in and I tried to put a good swing on it. Fortunately it found a hole.
DL: You also singled your second time up, again on a fastball.
RH: Yeah, he had me 0-2 and had thrown a fastball up and in, and broke my bat, the pitch before. It was [another] 0-2 fastball up and in and I just kind of fought it off; I fisted it and put it in the right spot. That was just being in battle mode, was all it was. I was fighting something off.
DL: Your third time up you flied out to the warning track in center field. Did you think it had a chance when it left your bat?
RH: No, I didn’t. I knew that I didn’t get it as good as I needed to. I hit it well; I just didn’t hit it as good as I’d have needed to get it out of there. I saw him drifting back and I thought that it might get over his head for a double, or something like that, but I didn’t think I got it enough. I put a good swing on it, but I just missed it a little bit.
DL: Your last at-bat came with two out in the ninth inning with the tying run and go-ahead run on base, and Papelbon on the mound. You went down swinging.
BH: Yeah, the game was on the line, but I don’t think there was any extra pressure or anything. I just kind of amped myself up a little too much and chased a pitch out of the zone early in the count and got myself in the hole and ended up having to try to hit some of his better pitches. He’s one of the better closers in the game and he makes pitches when he has to. I worked the at-bat good and got the count to 3-2, but he threw a split to end the game.
DL: One of the best closers in the game threw you a splitter on a 3-2 count. You may have been playing your first big-league game, but that sounds a lot like respect.
BH: Oh, I don’t know if that was respect. It may have just been that he wasn’t really finding the zone with his fastball and that’s what guys do. When guys have a couple of pitches that they go to, and one isn’t working, they go to that other one. [Papelbon’s splitter] was working that at-bat and like I said, he’s one of the better closers in the game. He makes pitches and he made a good one there against me. It‘s OK. It‘s the first time I‘ve seen him and hopefully I can put that in the back of my mind and know better for next time.
Follow-up: Hughes didn’t get to face Papelbon again on Sunday, but he did come through with a bases-loaded single off of Boston’s Scott Schoenweis to break a 4-4 tie in the 10th inning, helping the Orioles to a much-needed 7-6 win, just their third of the season. It was the fast-starting rookie’s second hit of the game and his fourth in nine big-league at-bats. He had the following to say after the game:
"No outs, bases loaded, we’ve got to get at least one run there and I was just trying to find a pitch up that I could hit through the infield or get it deep enough. I was looking for a good pitch and I got a good fastball and put a good swing on it, and it got through there. That was nice… Last night, I think the adrenaline was kicking in big-time. Today, I was settled down a little more, and that’s what I said yesterday when I was talking to Luke [Scott]. I kind of want to get past the 'Wow' stage and justplay ball."