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September 13, 2017

For Phillies rookies, the comfort of big league clubhouse far from 'alien'

There may have only been a couple hundred people, tops, still inside Citizens Bank Park when the innings played reached the teens late Tuesday night, but a noticeable groan – perhaps a with a tinge of sarcasm, but it was overridden by a desire to get the heck out of the park and to bed – was heard when Rhys Hoskins sent a mile-high pop up to Dee Gordon near the mound in the 13th and again when he flew out to Giancarlo Stanton in the 15th.

You’re supposed to homer every at-bat at this stage of the game, Rhys, don’t you understand?

“My biggest disappointment was that Hoskins didn't hit his third home run to win the game,” manager Pete Mackanin said, cracking wise, when the baseball marathon reached its finish line. “That kind of disappointed me.”

The 24-year-old Hoskins has set the bar high for every power-hitting rookie that follows him into the major leagues following his five weeks since arriving to the Phillies clubhouse. And he’s also set the bar high for himself.

How do you top hitting 11 home runs in your first career 18 big league games, and become the quickest in the history of the game to each number that follows the phrase “Career Home Run Number?” You begin another run (he’s homered four times in his last four games) and do it with style in a game that was as wacky as any played in South Philly in the first five months of the 2017 season.

A game that, mercifully for those young Phillies guilty of premature celebration, ended with rookie Nick Williams walking it off with a two-out, opposite field double in the 15th inning for a 9-8 win.

“Two walk-offs in one game,” Hoskins said. “I think we needed it, to say the least, after the ninth inning.”

The Phillies celebrated a walk-off win in the bottom of the ninth inning when Hyun Son Kim ripped a two-out hit … but then had to watch Gordon and the grounds crew cleanup up the bubble gum mess they made celebrating at first base when the Marlins challenged the play at the plate and the call was overturned. Cesar Hernandez, out of the starting lineup in favor of rookie J.P. Crawford, did not do a great job of sliding into home plate … one of three plays at home plate that could have came back to haunt the Phillies when the night of never-ending baseball actually ended.

Instead, Hoskins provided some heroics.

After spurring the Phillies comeback effort with a solo home run in the seventh inning – they had trailed 7-2 entering the inning – Hoskins came to bat in the 10th with two outs and his team down by a run following a home run by Marcel Ozuna. The Ozuna home run came on the first at-bat following the walk-off hit gone awry in the ninth.

After watching a 100-MPH go by for a ball, Hoskins ripped his 16th home run in 112 major league at-bats into the shrubbery behind the center field fence to tie the game.

Hoskins has reached 16 home runs quicker than anyone in baseball history. Although his big league career is all of 32 games old, Hoskins is already more than halfway toward the total home runs (29) he hit in 115 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley this season.

Combined, Hoskins has hit 45 total home runs in 2017. Only one player has hit more: Giancarlo Stanton, with a major league-leading 54.

“He’s an alien,” Nick Williams said. “He’s not human. It’s not real.”

But here’s the thing: the comfort zone that Hoskins has found in the young Phillies clubhouse has made him feel like the exact opposite of an alien.

This isn’t Domonic Brown joining a veteran-laden team a half decade ago, seen as the best hope to take the franchise into the future. It’s not Pat Burrell beating the rest of the members of the franchise’s recent golden era to the big leagues at the turn of the century, or Scott Rolen carrying the baton 20 years ago.

When Rhys Hoskins arrived last month, Nick Williams, his teammate for the first half of the season in Allentown, was already in the Phillies lineup and thriving. Jorge Alfaro had been called up a week earlier. Top shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford made it feel like IronPigs South when he joined the clubhouse of his former Triple-A teammates last week in New York.

“There are pros and cons to both, if we have more veteran guys around we’re kind of able to learn from them and the way they were brought up in the game,” Hoskins explained. “But because we have such a young team it’s a lot more familiar walking in the clubhouse, especially this year. I think there’s a little bit more of a sense of walking into this clubhouse it’s more of the same.”

There’s even a ping pong table not far from Hoskins’ and Williams’ locker stalls inside the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park, a new feature this year. The ping pong table – and the intense games played on it around the clock – have been a staple in recent seasons in the cozier (read: smaller) home clubhouse at Coca-Cola Park in Allentown.

With a team full of rookies, no one player has to feel like he has to be a savior, whether it’s a guy breaking rookie home run records nightly, a young catcher learning on the job behind the plate, a longtime shortstop playing other spots in the infield, or left-handed hitting outfielder who has enjoyed his own success in the big leagues this summer, even if he is being overshadowed by his history-making teammate.

The first of those players is Hoskins, of course. He’s left most speechless. The third is the 22-year-old Crawford, who made a few dazzling plays early in his first career start at second base and also collected a pair of hard-hit doubles late.

Growing pains are unavoidable for young players and Alfaro was the recipient of those on Tuesday, botching a couple of relay throws home (and oddly failing to catch a pitch from Nick Pivetta at one point, too), the former allowing two crucial runs to score.

“Those were two important runs,” Mackanin said. “The one ball short-hopped him. The other ball, he could have reached in a little farther and gotten in front of it. You have to catch the ball. But it's still a tough play.”

Thankfully for the 23-year-old Alfaro, there’s a room full of rookies to help share the spotlight (both good and bad) on any given day in the final months of the 2017 season for the rebuilding Phillies. He didn’t have to answer questions about his defensive deficiencies costing his team the game because another first-year player, Williams, won the game three minutes before it reached its sixth hour.

“No matter how many you have here, I think in general it can be tough,” Williams, who just turned 24 last week, said of trying to impress as a rookie. “Trying to control that can be tough at times. I know at times I’ve had trouble trying to think I need to do so much, that I need to get the big hit every time. You don’t. You just have to play your game. If you’re playing hard, everything takes care of itself. You can’t get a hit every time. It just took me a little bit to learn that.”

And it can’t hurt to learn by looking around the room and seeing the guys you played with and won with at Triple-A just three months ago, watching how they’re adjusting to the big leagues, too. Even if you now refer to them as aliens.

“That guy is pretty good himself too,” Hoskins said of Williams, who is slashing .292/.349/.500 after his first 65 big league games. “So I guess we can be alien friends.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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