As Ben Francisco danced across home plate with the winning run in the Phillies' last-gasp first victory Friday, teammates engulfed him in one of those bouncing celebratory circles that are mandatory exclamation points after walk-off wins.
For Francisco, who must replace Jayson Werth after rarely performing in public over the last 11/2 seasons, the mass hug could be symbolic as well as real.
If he can fill a key role in a Phillies offense with many question marks, he will be embraced by the manager who seems to have given him the right-field job, by his teammates, and by a baseball-crazed city.
People have "got to wait and see and watch us play," Francisco said, addressing the civic anxiety that has accompanied Werth's departure and Chase Utley's disabling injury. "Everybody was a little panicked, but we've got good players here. . . . Everybody loses guys every year. It's our job to replace them."
Both Francisco and Wilson Valdez, whose super-sub performance in 2010 already has earned him cuddles, played key roles in the 5-4 season-opening win over Houston, their first as the replacements for Werth and Utley, respectively.
It wasn't all hugs and high-fives for Francisco. Earlier, in the fifth inning of a scoreless game, the rightfielder misplayed a ball hit by catcher Humberto Quintero.
"I kind of got turned around," Francisco said. "The wind kind of blew it toward the line, and I kind of took a bad route on it.
But pitcher Roy Halladay, who escaped the inning with no further damage, "picked me up," Francisco said.
The play accentuated what is manager Charlie Manuel's biggest concern about the player who arrived here from Cleveland with Cliff Lee in 2009, the player he started in lieu of John Mayberry Jr. and Ross Gload: Defense.
"The ball he missed he should have caught," said Manuel. "Outside of that, he charged a couple balls. . . . Defensively, he needs to play, and we'll see how good he is. Sometimes when you're not a regular player and you sit on the bench a little while, sometimes it takes you a little while to get used to playing in the field."
The decisive ninth showcased some of the players the Phillies, who raised almost no fuss against Astros starter Brett Myers, need to produce - Francisco, Valdez, and Mayberry.
With runners at first and third and one out in a game the Phils trailed, 4-2, Francisco singled to left-center, scoring Jimmy Rollins. After Carlos Ruiz singled, so did Valdez. It was his second hit and first RBI of 2011, tying the game.
Then, when pinch-hitter Mayberry lined another single, over the head of a drawn-in Michael Bourn in center, Francisco scampered home and into the winners' cocoon.
"The big-name guys did their jobs, too," said Francisco, who went 1 for 3 with a walk. "Jimmy and Ryan got key hits there to get us started. And we followed up behind them. We all had good at-bats there in the ninth, and nobody made the last out."
Why the good at-bats then and not against Myers, when they were swinging early and often?
"The game kind of dictated that," Francisco said. "Brett was throwing strikes early in the count, and when you get a good pitch to hit, you've got to hit it. We didn't do that. But we've got professional hitters here, and they know what they're doing. And in the ninth, the guy was a little more erratic. We got in some good counts."
Before his big hit in the ninth, Valdez, who filled in admirably wherever Manuel put him in 2010, doubled off Myers in the third.
"We had to take advantage," Valdez said. "Their pitcher was leaving everything up. We got some hits, and we won the game."
That will happen more often, of course, if Valdez can keep his bat hot until Utley returns. As Manuel's favorite wild card last season, he set career highs in games (111), hits (86), runs (36), doubles (16), triples (3), homers (4), RBIs (35), extra-base hits (23), walks (20), stolen bases (6), and total bases (120).
"We have to go in there and fill in those guys' spots," he said. "That's why we're here. We have to play the game the right way, play hard, and make things happen. I learned that from last year. When I had chance to play, I didn't try to do too much."
Still, he is not used to the spotlight. As Valdez was beginning to undress at his locker, a crowd of reporters gathered behind him. When he turned, he seemed startled to see that many mics and notebooks waiting to record his words.
"Me?" he asked.
And yet his 2010 breakout had to have instilled confidence in a player who'd become a fill-in at the edge of the roster.
"It's not really confidence," Valdez said. "It's like I feel comfortable. Hopefully, I can keep doing what I'm doing."