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Ender Inciarte winning over fans, proving worth to D-backs organization

PHOENIX — Walk the Chase Field lower concourse and ask fans wearing Arizona Diamondbacks apparel to name a left-handed versatile outfielder from Venezuela, and they’ll probably mention Gerardo Parra.

I did just that, speaking with a dozen fans from around Arizona on Saturday. Eight of them, including Mark from Mesa, said Parra was the first player fitting that description to come to mind. A few others also mentioned David Peralta at some point in the conversation.

Three named Ender Inciarte.

“Parra is still more popular than Inciarte. Is that what you’re looking for?” Mark remarked later in the conversation.

To answer his question, yes.

Like Parra, Inciarte is from Western Venezuela. They grew up on opposite poles of Lake Maracaibo — Parra in Santa Barbara and Inciarte in Maracaibo.

Parra, soon to be 28, debuted for the D-backs in 2009, when he was 22. Inciarte broke in to the majors last year at 23.

Now with the Milwaukee Brewers, Parra was extremely popular among D-backs fans, thanks in part to his pair of Gold Glove awards and full-throttle style of play.

Inciarte hasn’t yet scaled to his countryman’s popularity levels with those in the Chase Field bleachers, but he may be on his way. Friday’s extra-innings walk-off single — the first of the 24-year-old’s career — certainly helped that cause.

But Inciarte wasn’t thinking about increasing notoriety in the Valley after Friday’s heroics; he first thought of his family. And then of Clayton Kershaw.

“I talked to my brother, my mother, some friends,” he said Saturday. “They were really excited about what happened. It was good. I had a lot of fun, but I’m already thinking about (Saturday’s) game.”

Soft-spoken and authentically humble, Inciarte opted to talk about his roots, his family and his role models in a clubhouse chat before Saturday’s matchup against the Dodgers.

“I grew up playing in a little league that wasn’t too big or too famous,” he said. “I grew up with humble guys and I learned from players, watching good players like Carlos Gonzalez — who was from Marcaibo, too — and Gerardo Parra.”

At 17, Inciarte was signed by former D-backs scout Miguel Nava, who also discovered Gonzalez, Parra and Texas Rangers prospect Rougned Odor. Along with his brother, Astolfo — a former D-backs outfield prospect, Ender spent 2008 in the Dominican Summer League, hitting .300 in 62 games.

With the Rookie-level Missoula Osprey the following season, Inciarte hit .325 with a .769 OPS. D-backs first baseman Paul Goldschmidt was his teammate there and said Sunday that Inciarte displayed shades of his current form while in Montana.

“He’s the same type of guy,” Goldschmidt said. “I think he led off or hit second for us up there. He did pretty much everything you see now; just, when you’re in rookie ball, obviously you’re a lot less developed. You could see the tools, and now he does all the same stuff. It’s just more consistent.”

Following the season with Goldschmidt and the Osprey, Inciarte spent three years at Single-A South Bend. All three winters of those years, Inciarte played in the Venezuelan Winter League for the Zulia Eagles, who are based in his hometown of Maracaibo. Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio, Greg Maddux and Ryne Sandberg all spent time with the Eagles — or Aguilas de Zulia, in Venezuela — during their playing careers, as did Gonzalez, Parra, Terry Francona, Joe Girardi, Jimmy Rollins, Frank White and current D-backs general manager Dave Stewart, among others.

Inciarte’s numbers gradually ticked up in both Venezuela and at South Bend, and in 2012, he earned a midseason promotion to High-A Visalia, where he thrived. In 62 games against California League competition, the then-21-year-old hit .319 with a .377 on-base percentage while stealing 28 bases.

In December of that year, Inciarte was selected by Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. after playing two months with Zulia, where Ruben Amaro Sr. was the general manager. He remembers being told by Amaro Sr. at some point that winter that a group of Phillies scouts would be in town for a few games to watch him play, and he remembers performing well during that span.

But Inciarte returned to the D-backs in 2013, after failing to appear in a Phillies’ game, though making the team’s Opening Day roster out of camp. He began the season at Double-A Mobile and hit .281/.327/.362 in 161 games, stealing 43 bases. And the winter after that season, back in Maracaibo with the Eagles, Inciarte had his best run yet in the Venezuelan Winter League — hitting .300 with a .747 OPS and 21 stolen bases.

Baseball America called him the D-backs’ “Fastest Baserunner” and “Best Outfield Arm” in their 2014 Best Tools Survey.

And a short stint with Triple-A Reno preceded his eventual major league debut with the D-backs in 2014 — after outfielder Mark Trumbo was sent to the disabled list in late April, clearing a vacancy in the Arizona outfield. A month later, the Venezuelan became the team’s everyday center fielder after A.J. Pollock was put on the disabled list with a broken hand.

“He did a great job,” Pollock recalled of Inciarte’s 2014 season. “I was kind of sitting back, watching him every time we played at home, and he stepped in and got better and better as the season went on. He got more confident.”

Though hitting just 4-for-36 (.111) in his first 19 games in the majors, Inciarte was one of Arizona’s best players for the rest of the season. He hit .293 with a .717 OPS in his final 99 games, getting 24 extra-base hits and stealing 18 bags in 21 attempts.

He’d finish fifth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting last fall.

This spring, the outfielder impressed a new D-backs regime with his defensive versatility and prowess at the plate. In the Cactus League, he hit .365 with a team-high four stolen bases and a .412 on-base percentage.

Hale said in late March what he said Sunday about the outfielder.

“Ender seems to be the guy who will be floating around a lot, but he’s going to have to get a lot of at-bats,” he said. “He’s a very usable piece. He could be starting on a lot of other clubs in center field, so we need to make sure that he gets a lot of playing time.”

Thus far, he has. Inciarte has made an appearance in all six of the D-backs’ games this season, getting a starting nod from Hale five times already.

“He’s pushing his way in there every day almost,” Hale said. “It’s hard not to have him in there.

“Ender has definitely impacted our lineup probably the most.”

The left-handed hitter has eight hits in his first 23 at-bats — including a double and two RBI — good for a .348 average thus far in the season.

His teammates couldn’t be happier with his inclusion in the lineup and presence on the roster.

“He brings a lot of energy,” Goldschmidt said of Inciarte. “He’s really smart and is always trying to get better. Last year when he came up, he struggled early, but he stuck with it. He was always in the cage working with Turner (Ward).”

Two lockers away, Pollock’s sentiments had a similar ring.

“He’s a loose guy — a lot of fun, loves baseball, loves being at the ballpark,” Pollock said. “And he’s been fun to get to know over the years.”

Inciarte is promising. He’s likely a soon-to-be household name in Arizona. He’s been one of the D-backs’ best players so far, but he won’t revel in that.

He said Saturday he owed all of his success to his family: his mom, his brother — whom he says is his biggest supporter — and his late dad.

“My father passed away four years ago,” he said, visibly emotional at his locker. “He’s the reason I am where I am, and he’s the biggest inspiration for me.

“Every time I go out there, I tell myself I’m going to play hard for him and for God.”

Inciarte was the final batter of the D-backs’ season-opening homestand, battling out a marathon 10-pitch at-bat against Dodgers reliever Joel Peralta with his team down 7-4 in the bottom of the ninth. He flew out to deep left-center field after fouling away five pitches.

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