Bryce Harper, before he even reached the batter’s box, dropped his bat into the dirt and unhooked his shin guard. The crowd hissed as he jogged to first base.
It was the seventh inning on Thursday, opening day, and the fans had flocked to a sold-out Citizens Bank Park to see the new superstar as much as they did to see the team. But Harper, who had a hitless debut in an emphatic 10-4 win over the Braves, was being intentionally walked. This was not what they had come to see.
The Braves opted to avoid Harper, making a somewhat perplexing decision to load the bases without an out and face Rhys Hoskins. And the sequence ended exactly how the Phillies imagined it would as they spent the winter recharging their lineup after a season of lackluster offense.
Hoskins crushed the second pitch he saw to left field, pointed to the home dugout as his first career grand slam soared, and sent Citizens Bank Park into a frenzy. Go ahead and walk Harper, the Phillies said, and test your chances against the rest of the lineup.
“We talked about it all spring long,” Harper said. “If I walk, the guy behind me doing damage like he did. That’s what it’s all about, getting on base, making the other team pay for walking me or whatever. Throw him a down-and-in heater and he absolutely parked it to left.”
Opening day may have been Harper’s day, but it was his teammates who did the pushing. All eight batters in the starting lineup reached base.
Andrew McCutchen led off the first inning with a homer, Maikel Franco blasted a three-run homer in the sixth, and Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez drove in runs.
Aaron Nola overcame a career-high five walks to strike out eight in six innings, and the bullpen -- despite a shaky outing from Hector Neris -- held on.
For most of last season, Hoskins seemed to be the only threat. But a busy offseason provided manager Gabe Kapler with an opening-day lineup that started with five batters who had an OPS last season of at least .755.
Harper, batting third, is in the middle of a group of hitters who allow no free passes. Pitching around Harper, as the Braves learned, can carry stiff consequences.
“That’s the presence of Bryce Harper, right? You walk Bryce, 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,” Kapler said. “I think one of the things that I shared is that even on days where our guys are not on the top of their game, they can contribute in other ways.
"I think McCutchen is going to be one of those guys who can reach base via the walk, and today it was Harper who reached base via the intentional walk, and that was a huge moment in the game for us.”
The season’s first game was the start of a 162-game journey that the Phillies hope ends with their finally returning to October baseball. For that to happen, they will need more than just Harper. And for one game, they proved to have so much more.
Kapler said before the game that it was a day to celebrate the new roster. The revamped lineup is so deep that Kapler can afford to bat Franco eighth after he began the season batting cleanup just two years ago.
It is a lineup that was built this winter to give protection to the team’s $330 million superstar. It will be hard for teams to defend walking Harper when they know who is waiting after him.
“It’s scary good,” Hoskins said. “There’s just not a deep breath, there’s not a breath of fresh air for the opposing pitcher. They decided to walk Bryce tonight. Sometimes they’ll walk him and they’ll walk me and then you have to face J.T. You walk Cutch, you have to face Segura. You walk Odubel, you have to face Cesar and then Franco.
"I think we saw it the whole game from everybody in the lineup. Everybody had great at-bats. and it’s pretty contagious.”
When Hoskins circled the bases, Harper was waiting for him at home before they returned to the dugout. The crowd, moments after they booed Harper’s intentional walk, had become unhinged.
This, the hope that the Phillies finally have a lineup that can stoke fear into an opposition, was the moment the Phillies offseason aimed to produce. Hoskins, with the park still rocking, climbed the dugout steps and waved his helmet in the air. The fans were no longer hissing. This is what the crowd had come to see.
“It’s a good start,” Hoskins said. “We’ll take it into Saturday. We’ll take the momentum.”