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August 10, 2017

Rhys Hoskins embraces moment of big league debut, new opportunity with Phillies

For the first time since Shane Victorino last walked from the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park five years ago, probably, a Bob Marley song blared over the speakers as a Phillies batter trotted toward the batter’s box.

There was a runner on second and two outs and the Phillies trailed the New York Mets by three runs in the second inning on Thursday night.

And everyone in the ballpark, of course, was eagerly anticipating the foregone conclusion that was the two-run home run Rhys Hoskins was about to hit in his first big league plate appearance.

Hoskins hit 67 home runs in the last two seasons at Triple-A and Double-A, after all, including in each of his last two games with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs this week (when he was re-learning an old position, left field) and hit five home runs in his last eight games this month.

Spoilers: Hoskins did not homer. Instead, he watched as New York Mets lethal right-hander Jacob deGrom spotted a 97-MPH fastball on the outside corner for strike three.

Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

“Yeah, that guy is pretty good,” Hoskins said afterward. “He had good stuff tonight, I think that was pretty obvious.”

Hoskins at least got a pregame tip from fellow rookie Nick Williams, who also faced deGrom in his own big league debut in New York six weeks earlier.

“He just said ‘hit the fastball,’ to be ready to hit the fastball,” Hoskins said. “And (deGrom) came right after me.”

Hoskins finished his first night in the big leagues 0-for-2 with a walk in the Phillies' 10-0 loss to the Mets.

Thankfully for Phillies fans, the success a player has in his first big league game or at-bat aren't indicative of the thousands of plate appearances they hope to have in their pro careers. Mike Schmidt, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard also struck out in their first big league plate appearances. Utley was booed, even.

And no one really expected Hoskins to walk into the ballpark, make a corner locker stall his new home and Scott Rolen’s 17 his new number, and completely change the complexion of a team with baseball’s worst record on Day One. Heck, even manager Pete Mackanin penciled the right-handed slugger into the bottom third of his lineup (he hit seventh) because he didn't want to send Hoskins the wrong message that he was some kind of savior.

But, really, what Mackanin did was standard operating procedure. Utley hit eighth in his first big league start. Giancarlo Stanton hit seventh. Bryce Harper also hit seventh, Aaron Judge hit eighth, and Mike Trout hit ninth (!!!) in their respective first big league starts.

We’re not saying Hoskins will go onto replicate any of their careers, but, when a 24-year-old hitter with Hoskins’ minor league resume shows up at a big league ballpark for the first time, this is the kind of thing fans who have suffered through a half dozen straight non-winning seasons will dream about on a picturesque night toward the end of a mostly forgettable summer.

Hoskins will have a chance to make the final leg of that summer more watchable for the Phillies, who have actually played quite well since returning from the All-Star break (13 wins to 11 losses entering Thursday).

The expectations for Hoskins are pretty simple: keep doing what you were doing the last two seasons in Allentown and Reading, hold your own out there in left field, and we’ll revisit the first base situation later. The situation could become more crystallized in the coming weeks, too, as Hoskins and Tommy Joseph will be sharing the same field, facing the same pitchers, and, of course, competing for the long-term first base job.

Both Hoskins and Joseph met with Mackanin and general manager Matt Klentak to talk about their respective roles in the season’s final seven weeks. The CliffsNotes version: both will play, Hoskins will also see time at first base, but neither are guaranteed to continue to play every day.

As always, production matters.

“I'm going to get (Hoskins) as many bats as I can,” Mackanin said. “I'm not going to promise to play him every day but I'm going to play him as much as I can, which should be a lot. … The whole goal is to find good hitters. I told Tommy he's 'a good hitter and so is Rhys Hoskins and we want to get as many good hitters as we can, and I'm not throwing you by the wayside, you're going to play too.' I have confidence in Tommy as well. It's just a matter of finding as many good hitters as possible and finding a way to play him."

While both players took pregame batting practice on Thursday, Klentak did a nice job sounding like a politician when he pried the door open slightly on Hoskins’ long-term ability to play left field. [Note: this, of course, is highly unlikely with the Phillies carrying three young and talented outfielders, Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr, and Nick Williams, into 2018 and beyond].

“We'll see how it goes in left field,” Klentak said. “We think (Hoskins) can play first base, for sure. We'll see what he can do in the outfield. Having some versatility in his game can only help the team.”

A hard, sinking line drive off the bat of former Phillies prospect Travis d’Arnaud found Hoskins in the game’s first inning, of course, and the new left fielder handled it without issue. “As the game went on,” he said afterward, “I felt more comfortable out there.”

Klentak and Co., who had a crowded outfield just two weeks ago with Howie Kendrick still around and Aaron Altherr still healthy, have been afforded what’s likely to be 3-4 weeks to continue playing both Hoskins and Joseph because Altherr (hamstring injury) isn’t due back until “sometime in September,” according to Mackanin.

But, before 2018, a decision will need to be made on first base.

Hoskins, who arrives to the big leagues with strong plate discipline (he had just 11 more strikeouts than walks at Triple-A) to go along with the power, surely has an early leg up, but the Phillies won’t easily discard Joseph, a former top-hitting prospect in his own right who is in his first season as an everyday player and who had his minor league development constantly stunted with injuries, namely concussions that forced him from his natural catcher position.

As guys like Altherr and Cesar Hernandez have shown, it can take a player a year or three to develop into the best versions of themselves. Not that the Phillies have the luxury of letting the Joseph-Hoskins conundrum play out deep into 2018.

Hoskins’ stay in left field is simply a temporary solution. One he’s completely OK with taking on since it means graduating from the bus rides in the International League to the posh life of a rookie in the major leagues.

“This is what you work for since the day you get drafted,” Hoskins said before the game. “It’s a dream come true to get here. I’m happy to be here.”

After it was over, he found his father, Paul Hoskins, as the big league ballpark emptied.

“He was more than ecstatic,” said Hoskins, who lost his mom to cancer when he was 15-years old. “So it was a cool moment to share with family, especially my dad.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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