CLEARWATER, Fla. — Rhys Hoskins was a few hours away from stepping onto the biggest stage of his career when he entered the batting cages underneath Nationals Park to take a few swings before last summer’s Home Run Derby.

The event was already billed around Bryce Harper, the hometown hero who opted against wearing a hat and instead let his long hair flow behind a stars-and-stripes headband while his muscle-man dad grooved him fastballs. If you wanted to find a villain, you didn’t have to look far.

“Playing against him, playing across from him, you hated him,” Hoskins said. “He was the guy who I think everyone loved to hate.”

But then in those underground cages, Hoskins met the person behind the headband. The arrogant-looking beach bro? That was a misconception. Harper, Hoskins would learn, was down to earth. He was much more than just a headband.

It was in those cages, a few hours before the derby, that a friendship was born. And it’s a bond the Phillies — and both players — hopes lasts for the next decade.

“I’ve come to learn that when he’s on your team, you want that guy in your corner. You want that guy in your bunker when you’re ready to go to war,” Hoskins said. “He’s an awesome dude. A great teammate. He slid right into this clubhouse culture and became a part of it.”

Hoskins’ gut was right

Hoskins spent most of the offseason with “a gut feeling” that the Phillies would end the winter with either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. Both players, Hoskins said, were “generational talents” who would make the Phillies “markedly better.”

But the mood sure felt dim when Machado signed with San Diego, leaving the Phillies down to their last superstar. Hoskins’ outlook didn’t change and a week later, his instincts were right.

Signing Harper was the final move of a busy offseason that remodeled the Phillies lineup. Andrew McCutchen is in left field. Jean Segura is at shortstop. J.T. Realmuto is catching. Harper is in right field. And the biggest benefactor? The guy at first base with the gut feeling.

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Hoskins hit 34 homers last season and posted a .850 OPS with little protection around him. Of the other seven Phillies regulars, just one had an OPS better than .770. Now Hoskins is slated to hit behind Harper (.889 OPS last season) and in front of Realmuto, who had an .825 OPS last season.

Opposing teams will find it difficult to pitch around any of them, especially the one batting in the middle of the three. After Hoskins did damage with such little protection, it is easy to imagine what he can do hitting between those big bats.

“There’s not really a break,” Hoskins said. “There’s no deep breath for the pitcher and it kind of becomes a pick your poison type of thing. Somebody eventually is going to get a pitch to hit and I think with the lineup the way it is, everybody is capable of doing damage.”

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All in for the long haul

Harper’s contract does not end until he’s 39 years old. If all goes well, he’ll finish his career with the Phillies. Hoskins, who is five months younger than Harper, is under club control for five more seasons. He has yet to even reach salary arbitration and cannot become a free agent until after the 2023 season.

Realmuto is under contract for two more seasons, but it’s safe to assume that the Phillies are already mapping out a way to extend his contract. They did not part with Sixto Sanchez for just two seasons of Realmuto. The heart of the lineup should be secure for the next several seasons.

Hoskins, if all goes well, will be approached by the Phillies sometime over the next five seasons to iron out an extension. Star players, at an increasing rate, are avoiding free agency after an offseason of slow movement. And Hoskins is more than open to the idea of staying in Philadelphia.

“If the Phillies will have me, I’ll be here as long as I can picture,” he said.

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The 1960s had Johnny Callison and Dick Allen. The 1970s and 1980s had Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski. The 2000s had Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. It it easy to look through Phillies history and identity two hitters from each era who defined the heart of the order.

But Hoskins and Harper — the pair the Phillies hope can fit that mold — have the chance to play together longer than other tandems.

“It’s going to be fun,” Harper said. “To have a guy like that hitting behind me, someone who has strength and power and can hit for average and understands his swing really well. It will be good to have someone like that.”

Caring and sharing

Hoskins shined last July in the Home Run Derby but came up just short of facing Harper in the finals. He watched from the field as the player he no longer hated smashed 45 home runs and invigorated a ballpark en route to winning the derby.

They would see each other two months later when they stood on the infield dirt at Citizens Bank Park and watched the grounds crew attempt to dry the field with blowtorches. The players had exchanged numbers and they shared the same agent after Hoskins signed last September with Scott Boras.

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Hoskins texted Harper throughout the offseason to check in and see if Harper and his wife Kayla needed any advice about Philadelphia. Harper, Hoskins said, at the end of last season was “a cool dude.” He no longer hated him.

Harper left comments on Hoskins’ Instagram posts, leaving a trail for Phillies fans to follow hoping it led to Harper wearing red pinstripes. Eventually, after a long pursuit, it did. The Phillies signed the superstar that this offseason was built around. Hoskins has another powerful bat to hit around. And a once-hated rival is now a friend.

“He’s awesome,” Harper said. “He’s humble, a really good guy, and easy to talk to. He’s a great dude.”

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