When the 2013 Temple baseball season ended last May, Matt Hockenberry joked with his roommate about playing one final year and hanging the cleats up, something he said no baseball player ever wants to think about.
Hockenberry had just finished a junior campaign that saw him go from a regular weekend starting pitcher in his first two seasons to mostly a reliever, with just six starts during weekday games.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound right-hander from Hanover, Pa., finished his junior year with a 5.04 earned run average.
To say a lot has changed since last May would be a massive understatement, starting with the fact that the baseball program will cease to exist come July 1, following the university’s athletic cuts.
There’s no joking about not playing baseball anymore, either.
The long, tenuous baseball journey for Hockenberry culminated Friday afternoon when he was selected in the ninth round (262nd overall) by the Philadelphia Phillies in the Major League Baseball draft.
Hockenberry figured to be a late-round pick, possibly on the draft’s third day. He was at his girlfriend’s house in New Jersey, following the draft tracker on his phone when he saw his name flash on his screen. Soon after, he got a call from Phillies scout Paul Murphy.
“I was biting my nails, almost eating my fingers down to my palms, just nervous,” Hockenberry said. “I knew the Phillies had a lot of interest because I had a pre-draft workout with them and loved every minute of it.”
At that workout, Hockenberry had a chance to throw off of the bullpen mound at Citizen’s Bank Park in front of multiple Phillies scouts.
“It feels like an honor,” he said. “I guess I showed them something throughout the season. They told me they wouldn’t have taken me in the 9th round if they didn’t think I could progress through the minors and hopefully make it to the majors one day.”
After growing up a Pirates fan, Hockenberry will be trading in his black and yellow ‘P’ hat for a red and white one.
“I’ve dreamed of this ever since I was a young kid,” Hockenberry said. “It’s not every day you get drafted in the 9th round by the neighboring big league team from the same city you played four years at playing college baseball.”
“I feel like a traitor, but then again the Pirates aren’t paying me to wear their hat,” he added.
Even his coaching staff from manager Ryan Wheeler to pitching coach Brian Pugh was surprised to see their ace’s name called as early as it was.
The assumption was that Hockenberry would go in the late rounds, and potentially not get drafted, even after his stellar senior season in which he went 5-6 with a 3.18 ERA.
“That was the feedback that I was getting from scouts and people in professional baseball that I trust and talk to,” Wheeler said of the late round projections. “I was just hopeful that someone was going to give him a chance. I think I was as surprised as he was.”
“It’s always great when you see hard work pay off,” Pugh said.
That hard work started a year ago, following the 2013 season.
Hockenberry went down to Virginia to play in the NCAA-sanctioned Valley Baseball League, a league filled with some of the top amateur talent in the country. There, he linked up with Blake Maxwell, a pitching coach at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke.
Playing for the Woodstock River Bandits, Hockenberry dominated, posting a 1.77 ERA in 45.1 innings.
Hockenberry credited Maxwell, a former pitcher with experience in the minor leagues, with much of that success.
“He kept telling me how good he thought I was,” Hockenberry said of Maxwell. “There’s different kinds of people in baseball. There’s the kind that tell you you suck to motivate you and there’s guys that blow smoke up your ass to motivate you. And then there are guys that you can tell are being honest; he was one of those guys.”
When it came time to start practicing again at Temple, Hockenberry came back with a chip on his shoulder.
Even leading up to the season it wasn’t clear if there was a spot in the weekend rotation for the upcoming senior.
Twin brothers Eric and Patrick Peterson were entering their junior seasons as shoe-ins to claim weekend spots, until they elected to transfer to North Carolina State in wake of December’s athletic cuts.
That’s when ‘Hock,’ as he’s known to most people, had his role cemented.
“His role was set, he became our No. 1 guy,” Wheeler said.
“That’s when I knew it was my time to shine,” Hockenberry said.
He didn’t shine right away, though.
In Temple’s first game of the year against Rider, Hockenberry gave up six runs (three earned) on 10 hits in five innings.
The following weekend on March 1, Hockenberry took the mound on the road against Virginia Commonwealth. After throwing five shutout innings, he allowed VCU to load the bases with one out. Out came Wheeler to get help from the bullpen with Temple leading 2-0.
“I have a tendency to have a little bit of a quick hook,” Wheeler said.
VCU would tie the game in the sixth and eventually win 5-2. That night, Hockenberry had a talk with Wheeler in Wheeler’s hotel room.
“As a senior captain I thought it was necessary for me to just go have a nice conversation and to see what he had to say,” Hockenberry said. “I can’t be worrying on the mound when [Wheeler] is going to walk out and take me out of the ball game.”
“Coach, you need to just let me do my thing,” Hockenberry told Wheeler.
“When a player tells you that, you have to listen to it and put some trust in him,” Wheeler said. “And I did. And then he went out and earned more slack on that rope. I would let him work through days where I didn’t think he had his best stuff.”
From there Hockenberry began to pitch deeper and deeper into games, giving his team a chance to win in mostly every outing.
Against nationally-ranked Louisville in the beginning of May, one year after joking about hanging the cleats up, Hockenberry struck out 10 batters in a complete game, 2-0 loss.
“I’m grateful to guys like Hockenberry for helping this program get through the season and have the success we had in conference,” Wheeler said. “Without him it could have been a disaster.”
Pugh was also instrumental in allowing Hockenberry’s senior season successes to occur.
He helped Hockenberry further develop his five-pitch repertoire of a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, changeup and slider.
“We’ve been working together for three years, this year we finally found that happy medium,” Hockenberry said.
After he was selected, Hockenberry sent a text message to Pugh. It read, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“The truth of the matter is, he’s the one that put in the work,” Pugh said. “All the credit goes to him.”
“He learned to pitch to contact, let his defense do work and take strikeouts when he had the opportunity to,” he added. “His confidence and competitiveness are what’s allowed him to be successful in general.”
Hockenberry will take that confidence and competitiveness with him to Clearwater, Fla., on Tuesday morning. He’ll sign a contract after taking a physical and will take part in a mini-camp with other draftees. From there he’ll be assigned to one of the club’s Minor League affiliates.
He’s not asking for much, though.
“All I asked for was a uniform and a ball,” he said. “It’s strictly business now. I’m here to win a ball game.”
Jeff Neiburg can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.