PHOENIX — Milwaukee right-hander Marco Estrada thought he had found a way through Chris Owings, the National League’s top rookie hitter.
The first two times through the order on Tuesday night, Estrada threw high fastballs past Owings for a swinging strike three. Fool me twice …
In the sixth inning, Owings lined the same high fastball into the left-field seats at Miller Park as the Diamondbacks chipped away from a three-run deficit for a 7-5 victory. Like the rest of the league, Estrada found out just how quickly Owings has adjusted to life in the major leagues.
After beating out Didi Gregorius for the starting shortstop position this spring, Owings carried that into his first full month in the majors when he was named the NL Rookie of the Month for March/April. Owings, hitting .298 with six doubles and four stolen bases, leads NL rookies with 31 hits, trailing only Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (37) as the top rookies hitters prepare to a meet in a three-game series at US Cellular Field this weekend.
The home run in Milwaukee was the first of Owings’ short career — he spent the final 3½ weeks of the 2013 season with the D-backs after being named the Pacific Coast League MVP by hitting .330 with 31 doubles, 12 homers, 81 RBI and 20 stolen bases. It will not be his last, teammates said.
"He’s done a great job at the plate," second baseman Aaron Hill said. "He just goes about his business, stays up the middle, doesn’t try to do too much, which I think is the key to everyone’s success. But I think he is doing a great job at a very young age of doing that. It’s fun to see.
"Once he gets comfortable up there, once he gets going, we’re going to see a lot of power numbers out of him, too, because he’s probably got the most pop, pound-for-pound, on this team.
"Oh, yeah. How quick his swing is. How much pop he’s got. He’s a really good hitter. That tends to come a few years in. I’m telling you, he’s going to be an elite player."
Owings’ bat was the deciding factor in winning the starting job, general manager Kevin Towers said when the decision was announced at the end of spring training, and maybe we should have seen it coming. Owings was in a hitting group with Paul Goldschmidt, Mark Trumbo and Martin Prado early in the spring training, the better to observe and learn.
"Just trying to learn from guys," said Owings, a sandwich pick in the 2009 draft, selected when he was 17. "It’s not so much talking. Sometimes just watching. I came up with Goldy, and it’s nice to see how he works. Hilly. Prado. (Cliff) Pennington. They have kind of taken me in. Watch them. Talk to them. Pick their brain."
It is the kind of approach a veteran appreciates.
"He’s just kind of like a happy kid," Hill said. "Every single day, he works his tail off. Always is asking about certain situations, plays that have happened, good or bad. What he could have done better.
Once he gets comfortable up there, once he gets going, we’re going to see a lot of power numbers out of him, too, because he’s probably got the most pop, pound-for-pound, on this team.
"Any time you have anybody with that type of head on their shoulders, the willingness to be open-minded … he’s got the right mindset. He has the work ethic that is going to keep him in the big leagues for a long time."
Owings has five errors, in the lower third of NL starting shortstops, but the D-backs have noticed improvement there. They are not alone. Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, in Arizona on assignment for Major League Baseball, gave Owings a standing ovation in the press box after Owings laid to make a diving catch of a foul ball deep down the third-base line April 26. The next night, Owings turned a line drive down the right-field line into a double with his speed. La Russa noticed that play, too.
"I like him. He’s got speed," La Russa said.
Owings is working on improving his defensive skills.
"Defense is more important than offense," Owings said. "Saving runs. You want to help these pitchers out, change the game. Part of my routine is getting my ground balls in, not taking anything for granted."
A September call-up is one thing, starting the season as a regular at age 22 is another. D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said he has seen Owings make the natural progression that points to a bright future.
"You see him starting to understand what goes on here," Gibson said, referring to Owings’ defense in particular, but a statement that could apply to his game in general.
"He’s more comfortable. Getting breaks on balls. The catch he made (that) night, lays out. We’re starting to see more advanced play out of him. I think early on, he had a lot going on. People are vulnerable to things when they get their first big league job. Overall, he’s handled it very well."