Opening day came eight days late this year, but hey, at least it came. The delay was Major League Baseball’s own doing and caused the league to share the pomp and pageantry of its annual holiday with the large spotlight cast by Tiger Woods and the Masters.
And in the first inning Friday at Citizens Bank Park, it wasn’t entirely clear which sport was being played.
Kyle Schwarber took a 7-iron — make that a 34-inch, 31-ounce Louisville Slugger — to a full-count pitch and blasted it into the bleachers in right-center field. It was a 426-foot leadoff home run, equivalent to a 142-yard drive down the fairway, and the first Schwarbomb in his first plate appearance of his Phillies debut.
Oh, and it was exactly what the Phillies had in mind three weeks ago when they signed the slugging left fielder to a four-year, $79 million contract and put him atop the batting order.
“I couldn’t write it any better, I guess,” Schwarber said.
Indeed, it all went pretty much according to Hoyle for the Phillies, 9-5 winners over the remnants of the everything-must-go Oakland Athletics. The Broad Street Bashers scored a bunch of runs with an offense that flexed its muscle and its ability to grind pitchers to sawdust. They took extra bases, going first-to-third and second-to-home four times in a four-run second inning. They played ugly defense in the seventh to allow the A’s back into the game, but ultimately hit over their mistakes.
And then there was Schwarber. Not only did he set the tone by reaching down and teeing off on a low-and-inside 97 mph sinker from A’s starter Frankie Montas, but he added a walk and an RBI single. In five plate appearances, he saw 21 pitches, and that includes an uncharacteristic first-pitch groundout in the fourth inning.
Schwarber played to the sellout crowd, too. He pumped his arms and gestured to the fans in the left-field bleachers as he warmed up before the first inning. And after the home run, he went to the top step of the dugout, doffed his helmet, and thrust it in the air in an emphatic curtain call.
“That was awesome,” Schwarber said. “I mean, stepping out there when you’re getting your name called to take the field, and then you go out and the ovations and things like that. And then your first at-bat into the game, it was all special.”
It’s been an emotional few days for Schwarber. After the Phillies played their spring training finale Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Rays, he flew home to Middletown, Ohio, to see his family for the first time since his wife gave birth to their son three weeks ago. The visit lasted all of about 12 hours, but Schwarber called it “a little rejuvenation before the season starts.”
“It was good for everyone,” Schwarber said. “It was good for me and good for my wife and good for him just to get back up there. They’ll be joining us whenever we get off the road, but it was definitely nice to go up there and see him again.”
So, yeah, Schwarber had a lot going on Friday. Maybe that explains why he reached out and pointed his index finger at the Phillies’ dugout after taking Montas deep. It almost looked like he was counting his home-run total in real time, and judging by the laughter that it evoked from Bryce Harper and other teammates, they seemed to think so, too.
“I don’t know why I did that at all,” Schwarber said, chuckling. “My heart rate was going about 150 miles an hour. I just did it. It was just adrenaline and things like that going. I was just kind of floating out there. If I hit another one, I probably won’t do it.”
Schwarber will surely hit plenty more home runs. But lest he be confused with a one-dimensional, Paul Bunyan-esque slugger, he showed off the full range of offensive skills that made him the Phillies’ top offseason target.
In the third inning, Schwarber got down two strikes and worked a walk against the hard-throwing Montas, then went first-to-third on J.T. Realmuto’s single to right field and scored on a double by Harper. In the eighth, he tacked on another run for the Phillies by stroking an 0-2 sinker to right field for an RBI single.
“He never gives up the at-bats, right?” Harper said. “He gets that knock, another RBI. I thought he had great at-bats today.”
Just like the Phillies planned it, right? Especially considering they haven’t had consistent production from the leadoff spot since Andrew McCutchen in the first two months of 2019.
McCutchen, coincidentally, was the last Phillies player to homer in his first at-bat for the team. But he struggled after blowing out his knee midway through that season. Last year, the Phillies used 11 leadoff hitters who combined for a .302 on-base percentage, worst in the National League and second-worst in baseball after the Texas Rangers (.280).
“When you think about his at-bats, it was 3-2 the first at-bat, 3-2 the second at-bat,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I think there was a walk in there. Base hit off a lefty. He hits left-handers, right-handers. It is kind of what we imagined.”
“I’ve always enjoyed coming here as a visiting player,” Schwarber said. “And now to be here on the home side and to be able to go out there and play for them, it’s special.”