Astros insider: Corey Julks' first career homer is worth the wait

PITTSBURGH — Corey Julks’ career is predicated on patience. Seven rounds passed during the 2017 draft before the Astros selected him. His wait to join them spanned six minor league seasons, 60 home runs and 2,058 plate appearances. Julks played eight major league games for his hometown team while still in search of his first home run.

Before it arrived, another delay appeared. Home-plate umpire Jerry Layne left the field after taking a foul tip off his hand during the bottom of the third inning Wednesday. Umpires working the plate wear a wide assortment of armor and padding to protect themselves.

Putting it all on is a 10-minute ordeal. Brock Ballou began it at 1:26 p.m. ET, and PNC Park grinded to a halt. Pirates defenders did not take the field. Veteran starter Rich Hill briefly stopped his warmup pitches. Houston’s scheduled hitters gathered inside the first-base dugout, including the man starting the inning on deck.

“I was trying to get my timing down while he was throwing his warmup pitches,” Julks said after Houston's 7-0 win . “Stay focused, not try to worry about that too much and be ready to swing when I got up there.”

Manager Dusty Baker begs all his rookies to have this approach. He appreciates aggression early in the count and loves when young hitters are hunting fastballs. Five of Julks’ first eight major league hits arrived against either a four-seam fastball or sinker.

Julks caught Baker’s eye through box scores last season. The Friendswood native struck 31 home runs, slugged .503 and reached base at a .351 clip for Class AAA Sugar Land, none of it enough to warrant a spot on the team’s 40-man roster this winter.

Twenty-nine other clubs chose not to select Julks in the Rule 5 draft in December, another apparent delay in his major league pursuit. Rule 5 draft picks must remain on a team’s 26-man roster all season or else they’re offered back. Julks missed a chance to slide onto a major league club. He earned a role instead.

“I told him day one when he got here that you have to believe you belong right away,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “A lot of guys come up, and they kind of tiptoe around and try to feel their way through things, but not on this team. We try to make sure everyone who comes up and is making a debut is confident in their abilities, believes in what got them here, and believes in themselves that they belong. I think he’s done a really good job of that.”

Reading Julks is difficult. He does not show much outward emotion and will never be confused for a loud clubhouse voice — traits most of his fellow rookies share. Some added attention follows him due to his University of Houston and Clear Brook High School roots, but Julks handles it with relative ease.

“I think I’m doing fine,” Julks said. “Everybody in here, the older guys have definitely helped a lot with that, from preparing before the game, having a nice plan up there each time and just trusting myself, trying to execute.”

Julks’ time in the major leagues might be brief. The Astros expect Michael Brantley to return from shoulder surgery in early May, making either Julks or Jake Meyers expendable. Meyers is faster and by far a better outfield defender, meaning Julks must swing his way into a permanent roster spot.

Baker has noticed Julks’ improvements on the basepaths and in the outfield. He made an acrobatic, sliding catch in left field Wednesday to take a hit away from Ji Hwan Bae, but make no mistake, Julks is here for one reason.

“I knew he could hit,” Baker said.

Julks heard Baker’s pleas for early-count ambushes. Hill is more reliant on a cutter than the four-seamers or sinkers Julks saw earlier this season. The veteran southpaw threw Julks one during an eight-pitch at-bat in the second. Julks lost the battle after popping a curveball to shortstop.

His second meeting with Hill featured the aforementioned holdup. Julks already waited an eternity to get here, so what’s 10 minutes more?

Ballou emerged from the umpire’s dressing room, allowing the game to restart. Julks took a first-pitch cutter from Hill. He came back with another. Julks’ focus is staying up the middle, spraying center field with line drives. In eight games, 45.5 percent of his contact is straight.

“I definitely start off up the middle and to the right a little bit,” Julks said. “If I catch it out in front, then I’ll pull it.”

Hill’s cutter darted down and in toward Julks. He barreled it to his pull side and immediately sensed it would leave the ballpark. A Pirates fan caught the baseball and, out of frustration, tossed it back onto the field. It found its way into Houston’s dugout for Julks to keep.

“It felt great,” Julks said. “I was trying to get that nice pitch to hit, nice pitch to swing at and execute it. It felt amazing.”

Julks returned to the dugout and delivered some high-fives. Baker said his hand still hurt from how hard Julks hit it, the only indicator that the unflappable 27-year-old was excited. Afterward, Baker presented him with a lineup card representing a moment Julks bided his time to experience.

“It’s something he’ll never forget.  Everyone remembers their first homer,” Baker said. “That’s something he can cherish and take with him, put it behind him and try to hit some more.”

Added Julks: “It was nice to get that one out of the way. Just keep them coming.”