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August 25, 2016

Cozens, Hoskins could cash in from Great Reading Home Run Race of '16

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082616_bashbros_RFP Don Holohan, Reading Fightin Phils/for PhillyVoice

Reading Fightin Phils teammates Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens have combined for 72 home runs this season.

READING – A siren went off inside FirstEnergy Stadium before the third inning of Thursday night’s game between the Fightin Phils and New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

But it had nothing to do with the best power-hitting showcase in Baseballtown’s half century as a Phillies affiliate. It wasn’t to remind fans to get to their seats to watch Dylan Cozens and Rhys Hoskins hit.

The siren was for one of the constant, in-between innings promotions that are a regular occurrence at minor league games across America. The loyal fans in Reading already know to be on alert when the country’s top two minor league home run hitters are due to bat.

Some even listen regularly to Reading play-by-play man Michael Ventola via the radio when the team is on the road to keep track of their at-bats, like season ticket holders Doug and Joanne Slichter.

“People that don’t normally come (to games) know who they are,” said Joanne, who began coming to games in Reading in the 1960s. “So for them to know who they are – you can feel the excitement when they come to bat.”

“It’s just fantastic,” Doug said. “Any time they’re at bat there’s a chance they can hit it out of the ballpark. And they do hit it out of the ballpark, out onto (Route) 61, over the Coors Light fence (in left field). It’s been great.”

Cozens, an outfielder, and Hoskins, a first baseman, have already made Reading history: they are the first teammates in the 50-year history of the franchise to each hit 30 or more home runs in a season. But they entered Thursday, and the final 12 games of the regular season, with an opportunity for more.

Cozens came into the night with 37 home runs, one shy of the franchise record set by Darin Ruf in 2012. Hoskins, with 35 home runs, could break the mark, too.

The Reading teammates are two of just six players in franchise history to hit 30 home runs, joining Ruf, Ryan Howard (37 in 2004), Greg Luzinski (33 in 1970), and Willie Darkis (31 in 1983).

“It’s definitely something special,” said the 23-year-old Hoskins, the Phillies fifth-round pick in the 2014 draft. “It’s a year that both of us will remember. Hopefully, we go on and have long and successful major league careers, but as far as getting there and the journey to get there, this is a year we’ll definitely remember. And if (the record) happens, it’d just be icing on the cake.”

It’s a season few people that have been coming to games regular in Reading will forget anytime soon. And there have been some memorable seasons here.

A dozen years ago, in the summer of 2004, a 24-year-old Ryan Howard ripped 37 home runs in just 102 games before being promoted to Triple-A Scranton-Wikes Barre. Eight years later, Darin Ruf hit 20 home runs in 31 games in August of 2012.

“When Howard was here, and he was coming to bat, nobody was going to get food. Kids could be dying for a funnel cake, dying of dehydration – a kid, dehydrated, and dad’s like, ‘Wait, Ryan Howard is going to hit one.’ And it’s that way with these guys. One after another. …You never know what you’re going to see.”

“That year I was off,” said Greg Pomian, who has worked as an usher at FirstEnergy Stadium since 2000 and began coming to games regularly in 1974. “I was in a coma for two months. I missed the whole 2012 season, I came with a cane for the last two games of the year. I came as a fan with my wife, and all kinds of medical devices and everything. And I sat there [points to seat] and I watched Ruf hit his 37th and 38th home run. … I missed the whole season but I got to see those two home runs.”

Pomian, who has regular dialogue with the home run-hitting duo at his post between the home clubhouse and dugout, and sees Cozens, Hoskins and many other Reading players regularly signing autographs and interacting with fans at the family-friendly ballpark, hasn’t missed any of the action in 2016.

“I told someone I think Rhys is going to hit two tonight to tie Dylan and make it interesting for the weekend,” Pomian said. “But that’s the way it’s gone all year. The 50th anniversary of the ball club and these two guys figure they’ll pull out all the stops and break the franchise record and maybe the Eastern League record. First two to 20 home runs, first to 30, first to 35. Every time you turn around it’s another ‘first.’”

The only home run hit on Thursday night came from fleet-footed outfield prospect Roman Quinn (his third in his last four games) as he came a triple away from the cycle in Reading’s 6-1 win over New Hampshire.

Even with a quiet night in Baseballtown, Hoskins and Cozens are the favorites to claim the Joe Bauman Home Run Award, presented to the top regular season home run hitter in all of the domestic-based minor leagues each season. Rochester’s Daniel Palka (32 home runs) was the only other minor league player who entered the week with at least 30 home runs.

The Bauman Award is presented each December at baseball’s Winter Meetings. And it comes with a pretty nice prize for a minor league player: a check for $200 for each home run.

“It’d be ideal to tie – then we’d both get the payout,” the 22-year-old Cozens, a second-round pick in 2012, said with a smile.

Perhaps the Great Reading Home Run Race will be a nice distraction for the pennant race in the Eastern League. Despite coming into Thursday 35 games over .500 (with more wins than the major league’s Chicago Cubs), Reading (82-47) was just 1 1/2 games ahead of Trenton in the Eastern League’s Eastern division.

“If we both get hot,” Hoskins said, “it’d bode well for the playoffs.”

Ryan Lawrence/PhillyVoice

Rhys Hoskins waits for his turn to hit as Dylan Cozens steps into the batter's box at FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading.

The two have been hot at the same time plenty in 2016, including in an insane two-game stretch three weeks ago. Cozens and Hoskins combined for eight home runs in back-to-back 13-0 and 12-8 wins.

“I was talking to (long-time coach) Mike Compton and he said it was like watching Dick Allen in the 60s,” Pomian said. “People didn’t leave until Dick Allen had his last at-bat because you never knew what you were going to see. People used to do that in Philly with Jim Thome, and you saw it here with (Ryan) Howard.

“When Howard was here, and he was coming to bat, nobody was going to get food. Kids could be dying for a funnel cake, dying of dehydration – a kid, dehydrated, and dad’s like, ‘Wait, Ryan Howard is going to hit one.’ And it’s that way with these guys. One after another. …You never know what you’re going to see.”

Since the first game in 2016, an exhibition between the Phillies and a team staffed of their more advanced prospects at FirstEnergy Stadium a night after camp broke in Clearwater in March, it’s been pretty evident what the folks in Reading were going to see this season: home runs. The two teams combined for 11 home runs in that contest, including one from Cozens and one from Howard, too, in a rare night when Phillies history and future crossed paths on the same field.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Cozens said. “We’re just trying to go out there and get better (each day). I think both of our goals are to be in the big leagues someday, and we want to do the same thing in the big leagues. So we’re just trying to help our team win.”

And the formula has worked well for Reading. The Fightins have already hit 169 home runs this season, 11 more than the previous franchise record and more than any other team in minor league baseball. They have the best-winning percentage (.638) in all of minor league baseball, too.

Either Cozens or Hoskins has homered in 51 of the 130 games Reading has played this season. They both have hit home runs in 13 of those 130 games.

And there are still 11 regular season games remaining on Reading’s schedule.

The next home run that either Cozens or Hoskins hits will give them a combined total of 73, which, according to Major League Baseball Advanced Media’s database since 1980, would be the new minor league record for a pair of teammates. They are currently tied with Brian Dopirak and Kevin Collins of the 2004 Lansing Lugnuts.

“It couldn’t be any better,” Joanne Slichter said. “This is our 50th year of (Reading’s) affiliation with the Phillies and to think of who all has come here through those 50 years and to have this kind of built-in excitement that wasn’t planned or expected. We knew they could hit them, but who knew (this)?”

According to MLB Advance Media’s aforementioned database, there have been 21 40-home runs seasons in the minor leagues since 1980. Would it surprise anyone if Cozens and Hoskins become the first set of minor league teammates to reach 40 in the same year?

If either of them hits 40, that Joe Bauman Award would net them a cool $8,000. What would a minor league prospect do with that kind of cash prize?

“It’s something I’d have to think about,” Hoskins said. “But we’ll have Christmas coming around the corner, so maybe treat some family members to something nice, or maybe a vacation.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21