Sports

Ex-Owl Matt Hockenberry: ’I’ve got 87 years of history riding on my back’

The former Owl is currently playing in the Philadelphia Phillies’ minor league system.

Matt Hockenberry is Batman — at least on social media.

When he started dressing up and acting like Batman on Snapchat, his friends joked that he might actually be Bruce Wayne and told him not to stop.

Hockenberry, 25, said he likes to compare Philadelphia to Gotham City. He spent four years in Philadelphia pitching for Temple and got drafted by the Phillies in the ninth round of the MLB draft in 2014, the last season before the Temple baseball program was cut. He’s on a mission to return to Philadelphia — his Gotham — in a Phillies uniform.

“My goal is just to … prove a lot of people that thought that Temple baseball wasn’t what it was wrong, because I’ve got 87 years of history riding on my back,” Hockenberry said.

Hockenberry reported to Clearwater, Florida for Phillies minor league camp on Feb. 19, about two weeks early, to show MLB personnel what he worked on during the offseason. He worked with team scout Roland George on finishing his pitches from mid-January up until he reported to camp.

He made his MLB spring training debut against the New York Yankees’ starting lineup on Thursday in Clearwater. He allowed five hits, including two home runs, in an inning and a third. He struck out the last batter he faced, infielder Pete Kozma.

On Twitter, he called it “one of the best days of my life.”

“It was an adrenaline rush. … I gave up a couple runs, gave up two home runs, but I still got some big-league guys out, which was the most important part,” Hockenberry said. “I got some feedback from the bullpen coach at the Major-League level. I got some feedback from a lot of the Major-League guys, and that just kind of fueled my fire with, you know, being the last guy from Temple baseball that is playing professionally right now.”

Hockenberry will start the season with the Reading Fightin Phils, the Phillies’ Class AA affiliate. He pitched three games in Reading last season but spent most of the season with the Class A Advanced Clearwater Threshers. He had an ERA less than two in 44 games.

In 2014, Hockenberry pitched to a 9.22 ERA in his first 10 professional games with the Lakewood BlueClaws, the full-season Class A affiliate of the Phillies. Later that season, he was sent down to the Williamsport Crosscutters in the Class A short-season New York-Penn League.

After Hockenberry bounced a fastball in the dirt in a bullpen session shortly after the demotion, pitching coach Aaron Fultz asked him if he was afraid to throw the ball. Fultz told him not to worry about adjusting his mechanics, to throw strikes and to take control of his career. Hockenberry returned to Lakewood in 2015 and posted a 2.24 ERA and held opponents to a .186 average in 42 games.

This offseason, Hockenberry worked on his curveball. The Phillies’ Director of Player Development Joe Jordan told him it had too much contrast, meaning it jumped up before it went down, allowing hitters to read it more easily.

During a game for Reading last July, Hockenberry thought he was throwing good curveballs, but said hitters “teed off on it.” He allowed three runs in an inning and two thirds. He has worked with Fultz to make it a more effective pitch with more velocity.

“In the minor leagues, sometimes you let a fastball slip up high, you let a breaking ball or a changeup slip up high,” Hockenberry said. “And if that minor league guy’s not looking for that pitch, they either swing through it because their timing’s not there, they foul it off because their timing’s not there, or they just take it because it’s not the pitch that they’re looking for.”

“The thing that I saw in the Major League level was I threw really good pitches down in the zone that sometimes they would swing at, sometimes they wouldn’t,” he added. “But every time I left the ball up, whether it was hung or I just missed my spot, missed the catcher’s glove in the location we were trying to attack, I mean they tattooed it.”

When the season ends, Hockenberry works six days per week, including weeknights and Sundays at the All-Star Baseball Academy in Broomall, Pennsylvania. He works alongside Freddy Hilliard, who played for Temple from 2000-04 and is the head baseball coach at Malvern Preparatory School.

Hockenberry received phone calls from other schools when Temple’s sports cuts were announced, but decided to stay for his senior season instead of transferring for one semester and having to come back to Temple if he wasn’t drafted.

Hockenberry is trying to become the first Owl to play in the majors since Bobby Higginson, who played for the Detroit Tigers from 1995-2005.

“I think to be honest, whether or not they bring the program back, if I make it to the major leagues, it’ll kind of add some closure,” Hockenberry said. “In my mind, it’ll add some closure to that program, saying, ‘Yeah we had one guy that did it for all of us.’”

Evan Easterling can be reached at evan.easterling@temple.edu or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.

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