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Former Hawaii player Josh Rojas goes from ‘utility man’ to leading man on the Arizona Diamondbacks

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Arizona third baseman Josh Rojas ran the bases against the Phillies in Philadelphia on Sunday.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Arizona third baseman Josh Rojas ran the bases against the Phillies in Philadelphia on Sunday.

PHILADELPHIA >> The baseball education of Josh Rojas is progressing quite nicely these days.

Following a month-long setback with a hamstring injury, the kid who spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons honing his skills at the University of Hawaii under Mike Trapasso has become a fixture in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ lineup.

Not only that but after being the proverbial vagabond “utility man,” who at one point had played every position as a pro except pitcher, centerfield and catcher —the latter kind of ironic since he actually started out in Little League behind the plate — he’s found a home at the hot corner, third base.

“I’ve played second base the most (64 games), said Rojas, who had two hits and scored three runs as the Diamondbacks wrapped up a 4-5 road trip by snapping the torrid Phillies’ nine-game winning streak 13-1 Sunday. “But this year I saw an opportunity at third and tried to put in as much work as I could in the offseason.

“I did OK in spring training and have continued to progress throughout the year. There are definitely adjustments I’d like to make and a few balls I didn’t get to that stick in my mind.”

For example, he booted a ground ball in Saturday’s 4-0 loss that prolonged the inning and ultimately resulted in a two-run Bryson Stott homer. But after flubbing another one Sunday, he shook it off by slapping an RBI single to key a four-run inning that broke the game open.

“We talk about securing the baseball first,” said Arizona manager Torey Lovullo, like Rojas, a utility man during his playing days. “I could tell he was down, very dejected. But I thought he did a good job picking himself up.”

It was also his baserunning that helped make a difference Sunday when Rojas scored from second on a dropped throw by Phils’ catcher J.T. Realmuto.

“I was just trying to make something happen,” said Rojas, whose 0-for-4 Tuesday night dropped him from first to third (.263) in team batting. “Our pitcher (Noe Ramirez) really picked me up after that error with two strikeouts, because you always want to get a win when you’re heading home.”

It was during the D’Backs previous road trip, though, where Rojas became a part of history, becoming the 11th player in franchise history to hit three home runs in a game on May 20 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

“I don’t care if the wind is blowing 100 mph, anytime you hit three home runs it’s pretty special,” said Rojas, who took Cubs’ starter Kyle Hendricks deep twice, then hit No. 3 off Mychal Givens. Rojas had a chance at No. 4 later. “I went up there with the intent of trying to hit a homer and he (right-hander Robert Gsellman) pitched me well, painted me on the corners and struck me out.

“Disappointed is probably not the right word there, I was excited to try to hit my fourth and when I didn’t I just realized I had hit three homers and was pretty happy about that.”

“The good thing was there was only two at bats I was trying to hit a homer. One of them was a groundout and one a strikeout. The three homers were actually on at bats where I just trying to put a good swing on the ball and put it in play. The first one just barely cleared the fence. The other two I knew right off the bat they were homers.”

Reaction came fast and furious. “My phone blew up,” Rojas smiled. “Family. Friends. Everybody.

“And I know it was on Hawaii social media and Twitter, because I got some shout outs from there.”

Thus continuing a relationship that began when he was in high school.

“I went there one time on vacation with my family,” recalled the soon-to-turn 28-year-old. “We stayed on Waikiki and went to the beaches,

“So to come back and go to school and play baseball there was really cool. You always visualize it as a vacation spot where you only go to visit.”

That all changed when Rainbows’ assistant Carl Fraticelli spotted him in a junior college all-star game. “A lot of college teams scout that,” explained Josh, who was born and raised in the Phoenix area. “That’s where the coach from Hawaii first saw me play.

“He contacted me and I went out there for a visit. They were playing Oklahoma at home and it was ‘sick.’ I said to myself, ‘I could definitely see myself playing there’ and also it’s Hawaii. I couldn’t have picked a better place to go, because they love their baseball there.”

And while it’s been a while since he last said aloha, he has nothing but fond memories. “I miss Hawaii, for sure,” said Rojas, who was there for a clinic right before COVID hit in 2020. “I had two great years there. It was an awesome experience and I can’t wait to get back.”

After hitting .268 with five homers and 41 RBIs during his two-year stint, the Houston Astros drafted him with the No. 781 pick in the 26th round of the 2017 draft. Two years later, following a series of minor league stops , Rojas was playing for the Astros’ Triple-A Round Rock, Texas, team when he received some unexpected news.

He’d been traded. “I was not expecting that at all,” admitted Rojas, one of four players going to Houston in the deal for veteran right-hander Zack Greinke. “At that time I wasn’t a top prospect.

“I figured Houston would try to get some pitching, but was not expecting that to be me.”

Nor was he expecting that to be the break he’d been waiting for. Just 12 days later, he would make his major-league debut, going 2-for-4 and driving in a run against Colorado.

Besides all that excitement came the additional challenge of now literally playing for his hometown team.

“I was nervous to be traded home,” said Rojas, who actually lived in his parents’ house that season, before buying his own place. “But to be able to make my debut in my hometown city was pretty awesome.

“One of the biggest hurdles was how many people wanted tickets for the game and how many wanted to see me after the game. It was different because coming from the minor leagues you’re always on the road, away from family and friends and all distractions.

“There it’s strictly business, Show up. Go to the game, Go home. Get ready for the next day. You come home and there’s all these distractions. So I have to try to separate the two.”

Things have eased a bit since he bought the house and has been able to get into more of a routine. Everything was going along fine until this spring when his strained his oblique muscle.

“I’d never had an oblique injury,” said Rojas, who didn’t make his 2022 debut until May 6 “I felt a gradual pain, then it got a little worse.

“The crazy thing about that injury was I actually didn’t know what caused it. The biggest thing right now is keeping it loose. The trainer and the strength guys did a really good job preventing it from getting worse.”

“A lot of the first two weeks in rehab is spent strengthening everything around it because you can’t do too much. with it You’ve just got to let it heal.”

Now that he’s healthy Lovullo says Rojas is giving the Diamondbacks a little bit of everything. “He’s a very dynamic player,” said Lovullo, who shifted him between the No. 2 and 3 holes in the lineup during the Phillies’ series. “He has a nose for the baseball and he’s hungry.

“He’s one of those players who can turn the page after good or bad moments and understand why it did or didn’t work and learn from every opportunity.”

Hitting coach Joe Mather takes it a step further. “No. 1, he’s a competitor who’s a pretty complete player,” said Mather. “He hits for average, gets on base, has some power and does not give in. He can do a little bit of everything.”

Plus he’s someone who has a pretty good idea of who he is and what he’s capable of. “I’m pretty scrappy,” said Josh, who’ll celebrate his 28th birthday June 30 in Colorado. “I try to go up there and have a good at bat, put the ball in play and get base hits.

“Every time I step up there I’m just trying to keep the line moving.”

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