Six months ago, almost to the day, Maikel Franco packed his things, wished his teammates well and walked out of Citizens Bank Park, not knowing when or even if he would return.
Maybe that’s why Thursday felt so different.
Or maybe it was this: Franco has now been through four of these opening days with the Phillies. The third baseman has seen the pageantry and the pomp, the pregame introductions, the bunting on the facade, the American flag stretched across the outfield grass. But never before his career has so much been expected. Never before has he played alongside a group as accomplished as Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto and Bryce Harper.
Take it from Franco when he says this is a new day for the Phillies.
But there was something fitting, even poetic, about Franco and the other survivors of a 3 1/2-year rebuild playing the hero roles in the opening act, a 10-4 thumping of the Braves. Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez stroked back-to-back RBI singles to open a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning; Franco hit a three-run homer in the sixth; Rhys Hoskins belted a grand slam in the seventh that sent a sellout crowd of 44,469 into a state of delirium.
And for a few hours, all the lean years filled with all that losing -- “A lot of losing,” Franco said with a sigh -- suddenly felt worth it.
“The last three years have been tough for us,” Franco said. “But right now, this year, we have a better team. We have a better chance of making the playoffs. I’m here and proud to be with my teammates. It’s a blessing for me. I don’t want to take it for granted.”
That’s unlikely. Hernandez debuted for the Phillies in 2013. Franco came along the following year as a September call-up. Herrera joined the team in 2015 as a Rule 5 draft pick. Between them, they started a total of 1,600 games entering Thursday. The Phillies’ record with Hernandez in the lineup: 256-311; with Herrera: 228-308; with Franco: 224-273.
The opportunity to finally play for a contender isn’t anything they figure to take lightly.
“You work to contribute. You work to play your butt off,” Herrera said through a team translator. “I think it’s pretty special when you see a guy like the third baseman and myself doing good things.”
Hoskins, like homegrown ace Aaron Nola, was always going to be part of the Phillies’ next winning team. But Franco would be lying if he said he knew all along that this day would happen. It seemed possible, even likely, that the Phillies would trade him. Herrera and Hernandez could’ve been dealt, too. They were hardly safe from an expected roster overhaul in the offseason.
It wasn’t until the second week of spring training, when the Padres outbid the Phillies for free-agent third baseman Manny Machado, that Franco knew he would be spared from moving on. Still, he and Herrera had to compete for their jobs in camp. Even now, manager Gabe Kapler insists that at-bats at third base and in center field must be earned, especially with utilityman Scott Kingery pushing to crack the the lineup.
Throughout their careers, Herrera, Hernandez, and Franco have batted in the upper half of the Phillies’ order. On Thursday, they batted sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively.
But Kapler didn’t notice any difference in their approach. Herrera, always aggressive, still jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Braves starter Julio Teheran and took it up the middle for a tiebreaking single in the fourth inning. Hernandez followed by punching a changeup into left field.
Franco’s at-bat was a beauty. Batting in the No. 8 spot, where he thrived last summer, he fouled off back-to-back 94-mph heaters from reliever Shane Carle, worked the count full and fouled off a slider before crushing a fastball to left field to open a 6-1 lead.
“I think the cool thing about watching Hernandez’s at-bats in the seven-hole is they looked just like his at-bats at the top of the lineup,” Kapler said. “And Maikel Franco’s at-bats, while they were good in the eight-hole, were also similar to when he was hitting third or fourth. It’s possible that some of the pressure is off those guys and they may produce better as a result. But time will tell on that front.”
If Kapler doesn’t sound entirely sold on the Rebuild Survivors, it might only be because he wants to keep pushing them. Clearly, though, the Phillies valued enough about Hernandez, Herrera, and Franco to keep them around even as they replaced young shortstop J.P. Crawford with Segura, catcher Jorge Alfaro with Realmuto and put Nick Williams on the bench behind Harper.
“Sometimes it was tough,” Franco said of not knowing whether the Phillies wanted to keep him around for a day like this. “But it’s nothing you can control. Today, I felt weird. Everything was loud. You see a lot of people. It’s different for me. I’ve been here, this is going to be my fifth year. I’ve never seen [fans] going crazy like that. It's crazy. But I want to tell you something: It's a beautiful thing.”
After all the losing, it’s something to behold.