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Life comes at you quickly when you’re an inexperienced rookie on the best team in baseball and you’re thrust into a starting role at a position you’ve rarely played because two star outfielders get hurt the first week of the season.
So does the low right-field wall in foul territory in Dodger Stadium, as Zach McKinstry learned the hard way in Friday’s home opener when he flipped over it after missing a second-inning fly ball and slammed into it while catching a fourth-inning foul ball in a 1-0 win over the Washington Nationals.
The following night, after he threw out a runner at third base to snuff out a rally and made a nice sliding catch of a flare near the line in a 9-5 win, McKinstry was asked how much his confidence is growing in right field, a position he made one start at in five professional seasons before last week.
“After going over the wall the other day,” the 25-year-old utility man said, “it’s definitely grown a lot.”
Wait, what? How would going headfirst into a slab of concrete on the other side of the wall and absorbing a ribs-crushing collision with the wall in the span of three innings improve your confidence at the position?
“Just knowing the grounds here, being able to slide in that situation instead of staying on my feet, like I did [Saturday night], knowing the whereabouts of the fence and all that stuff,” McKinstry said. “I’m getting more accustomed to the outfield. Every day is a different journey.”
It’s been a wild ride so far for McKinstry, who has morphed from a self-described slap-hitting infielder, a lightly regarded prospect who was a 33rd-round pick out of Central Michigan in 2016, into a key cog in the Dodgers’ 8-2 start in their defense of last year’s World Series championship.
With center fielder Cody Bellinger on the injured list because of a left-calf contusion and right fielder Mookie Betts missing the last four games because of back stiffness, the versatile McKinstry has started seven games, one at second base, two in left field and four in right field.
In addition to his improving outfield defense, the left-handed-hitting McKinstry is batting .321 (nine for 28) with two homers, four doubles and a team-leading 10 RBIs.
He jump-started Saturday night’s win with a two-run single in the second inning and drove in all three runs in Sunday’s series-sweeping 3-0 win over the Nationals with a two-out RBI double in the second and a two-out, two-run homer in the seventh.
“We’re just kind of seeing him mature right in front of us, really quickly,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I don’t think the game is too fast for him. … Each time he gets out there, he gets better.
“He’s kind of cut from that Chris Taylor cloth, where it doesn’t matter where he plays, he just wants to play, and he’ll figure it out and make the plays.”
Any comparison to Taylor, who has played capable defense at six positions while providing consistent offense for the Dodgers since 2016, is high praise for an aspiring big league utility player.
So is being called a left-handed-hitting version of Kiké Hernandez, the super utility player who played six positions and provided a booming right-handed bat for six years before signing with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent last winter.
“He’s been great,” Taylor said of McKinstry. “I think the biggest thing is, he’s having fun out there, playing with energy, making big plays in the outfield, where he hasn’t played much before, putting good at-bats together.
“I think we’re just seeing the beginning. I don’t think this is a hot streak or anything for him. He’s playing up to all of our expectations.”
Taylor said he thought McKinstry was one of the best hitters at the 2020 summer training camp, where the two formed a bond over their shared roles and Taylor began mentoring McKinstry. The two often walked out of Dodger Stadium together, discussing the challenges of their jobs.
“Watching him take ground balls and shag during batting practice, he’s the first guy I saw go hard during BP and actually get some really good reads off the bat,” McKinstry said of Taylor. “He’s a guy you kind of watch. He’s not much of a talker until you get to know him a bit, but he leads by example.”
Taylor has encouraged McKinstry to “have an aggressive mind-set and try to be great rather than just being adequate, wherever you are that night,” he said. “Don’t play passive.”
With Betts possibly returning for Tuesday night’s game against Colorado and Bellinger eligible to return Friday at San Diego, McKinstry’s playing time likely will diminish.
But McKinstry’s early performance may force Roberts to carve out more playing time for him than was expected entering the season. Though he played only four games for the Dodgers in 2020, McKinstry has shown he’s ready for a bigger role.
“You don’t really know [you’re ready] until you get out there,” McKinstry said. “The nerves are always gonna be there. You just have to find a way to cope with those and try to win a game. Never make a moment too big, and try to play the game you’ve been playing your whole life.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.