From a pregame ceremony with enough pomp and pageantry for a holiday parade to the lines of cars inching along Broad Street in the giddy aftermath, the Phillies’ 10-4 opening day victory over the Atlanta Braves on Thursday was a succession of sights and scenes and sounds that melded into what at times seemed three to four hours of psychedelia. And the man at the center and the cause of much of it didn’t so much as hit the ball out of the infield.
In his first official game with the Phillies, though, Bryce Harper was a star just the same. He received multiple standing ovations. He wore Highlighter-green cleats (each emblazoned with a photo of the Phillie Phanatic). He bowed to the red-and-white-clad fans seated in the right-field bleachers. Before the fourth pitch of his first at-bat, an eerie silence swept over the ballpark, as if all 44,468 members of the sellout crowd were inhaling at once, only to release their breath once he grounded out to first base. There was a smattering of boos that followed his second strikeout of the game, in the fifth inning, and there was a full-throated roar of collective disapproval in the seventh, when the Braves intentionally walked Harper to load the bases.
It was with that decision, of course, that everything was in position for the game’s pivotal and most dramatic moment — and that Harper’s status as a superstar and value to the Phillies was revealed. Rhys Hoskins watched a pitch from Braves reliever Luke Jackson sail by for ball one, then rocketed a 96-mph fastball into the left-field seats for a grand slam and a 10-3 Phillies lead. Harper greeted him at home plate, and the two bumped their right arms together to celebrate, and it’s safe to say that Citizens Bank Park was louder and more alive in that instant than it has been at any time since the Phillies last reached the National League playoffs, in October 2011.
“The atmosphere was unbelievable,” he said. “The place was rockin’. It was pretty unbelievable to be part of it.”
This was opening day and Harper’s debut, Major League Baseball’s biggest name making his first friendly appearance in Philadelphia after six years with a rival, the Washington Nationals. So you would have expected the ballpark to crackle with energy, as it did. And you would expect that energy linger and rise and fall throughout the season, now that Harper and catcher J.T. Realmuto and leftfielder Andrew McCutchen and shortstop Jean Segura are here, now the Phillies have remade their team into a bonafide contender. But the more significant development Thursday wasn’t the atmosphere around Citizens Bank Park that Harper helped create but the effect his mere presence had on the Phillies – purely in baseball terms.
Hoskins is 26 years old, a terrific young power hitter. Last year, he led the Phillies in home runs with 34 and runs-batted-in with 96, in his first full season in the majors, after hitting 18 home runs in just 50 games as a rookie in 2017. And the Braves chose to pitch to him, with the bases loaded and no outs, in a game whose outcome was still uncertain, because the alternative didn’t interest them.
“That’s the presence of Bryce Harper, right?” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “You walk Bryce, and you get to one of the best hitters in baseball, one of the best RBI men in baseball, and he comes through in a big way.”
It was the first time that this situation — a team walking Harper to take its chances with Hoskins — presented itself this season, but it won’t be the last. Harper, a prodigy since boyhood, is accustomed to being treated with such respect and deference. At no level of his baseball career, he said, has an opposing team ever intentionally walked the hitter in front of Harper, just to take a crack at him. “I don’t want to sound bad,” he said, “but I’ve never really been that guy.”
Hoskins has been in both scenarios. In the minor leagues, “we had some guys who could really bang,” he said, and sometimes he was perceived to be the path of least resistance. But last season, he was the Phillies hitter whom most pitchers sought to avoid, and the role requires a measure of patience that Harper, who walked a National League-high 130 times last year, has already mastered.
“It’s a skill, and you have to learn that, for sure,” Hoskins said. “That comes with experience, repetition, being in that situation, which doesn’t happen very often. If you get a pitch, you can’t be passive with it. You’ve got to be prepared for it. And if you don’t, you’ve got to trust in your teammate to get the job done.”
Hoskins did, and it set off the most joyous seconds of the most enjoyable day of baseball this city has seen in years. Bryce Harper was the middle of it all, in a sequence that the Phillies hope plays out again and again over the summer, and all he had to do was mosey to first base. Just wait until he actually gets a hit.