“It really pisses me off,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said Sunday afternoon, “when balls go underneath Rhys Hoskins’s chin.” Especially when the only thing Hoskins did to deserve one was to bat in the Phillies’ lineup behind Bryce Harper.
Harper’s mammoth home run in the bottom of the seventh off Braves reliever Shane Carle, after he’d spent the earlier part of Sunday’s 5-1 conquest of the Braves walking twice and doubling once, got Hoskins drilled after he’d fouled off the first pitch from Carle.
That first pitch was down the pipe. The second pitch crossed the plate head high and nailed Hoskins in the shoulder after he turned to avoid having his head torn off. Even on a sub-50 degree evening when, as Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta said, it was like trying to grip a cue ball, a batter getting drilled almost immediately after another batter goes long distance is suspect.
All Harper did was linger just a few seconds after he swung before running out the leadoff blast that landed almost in the rear end of the lower right field seats. Maybe what happened after he crossed the plate stuck a bug in the Braves.
These Phillies are an exuberant bunch. They take Harper’s mantra from 2016, “Make Baseball Fun Again,” seriously. They don’t just shake hands or bump or lock elbows when celebrating a buddy’s big hit, they have routines that include comic pantomimes.
Including but not limited to Harper and Andrew McCutchen buttoning up imaginary suits. Or Harper and Mikael Franco channeling their inner Usain Bolts and shooting imaginary arrows in the sky. Or assorted nutty handshakes. Or Harper and Hoskins’ elbow lock after Harper’s Sunday ICBM.
They’re baseball’s version of An Evening at the Improv when life is good and the Phun Phillies win. And if the other guys think it’s about as funny as a screen door on a submarine? Hoskins himself had one answer: “Don’t give up the home run, then.”
The good news is that Carle’s would-have-been decapitation wasn’t a three-season-delayed response to a postseason home run. Hunter Strickland, then with the Giants but now with the Mariners, thought of that when he drilled Harper in the hip in a May 2017 game—over a pair of blasts Harper’d hit off Strickland in the 2014 National League division series.
The second of those blasts sailed so straight above the foul line that Harper waited until he was dead last certain it would be called fair. It was—and it landed in McCovey’s Cove behind Oracle Park. (Oops—it was called AT&T Park then.) No matter. The only thing more astonishing than the blast itself was Strickland not facing Harper again until three seasons later and letting him have it.
The bad news is that nobody can prove for dead last certain whether Carle was trying to assassinate Hoskins but everyone can agree on one thing: it’s terrible optics when you’ve been taken to the last station on the downtown subway and you drill the next man up in the lineup. Especially at the end of a set in which Hoskins was brushed back a few times.
That’s probably what hit the mind of plate umpire Rob Drake when he tossed Carle without hesitation after Hoskins took it off the left shoulder. Brian McCann, the veteran catcher who’s returned to the Braves this season, pleaded in vain for his man. Considering McCann’s history of lecturing players on the spot about the Sacred Unwritten Rules, this was like Bonnie and Clyde acting as character witnesses for Ma Barker.
On the other hand, this might have been slightly out of character for the Braves. As Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Mark Bradley observes, “[S]eeing Harper do anything good really irks the Braves. Usually, though, they just throw at him.”
But then there was Braves manager Brian Snitker. “He lost the ball, and unfortunately it hit him. I hate that,” Snitker said of Carle. “Umpire had to do what he thought he had to do, but there’s no way in hell that he’s trying to send a message or anything like that. The ball just got away.”
So, apparently, did the optics. And watching a replay of the pitch several times, Carle was trying to throw up to the attic and into it if Hoskins hadn’t done the twist upon final approach.
The National League East was supposed to be a dogfight this season, right? Well, the four top dogs squared off among themselves to open the season. And one of them is undefeated so far while the other is the Show’s only club without a win to open their season.
The Mets took two out of three from the Nationals, and the Nats at least showed some life after a few Opening Day malpractises to win Sunday with a little help from a pocketful of Met mistakes. The Phillies swept the Braves and, as good as you suspected the Phillies would really be, this sweep felt almost like watching an F-22 shoot down a Douglas DC-3.
The Phillies out-scored the Braves 23-11 on the set. The bullpen was a collection of calves with Carle himself appearing twice and showing a 27.00 ERA for his effort; they haven’t blown any saves but, as Bradley rather cruelly noted, “They haven’t had a save to blow.”
Julio Teheran started Opening Day and surrendered “his usual” (Bradley’s term) first inning bomb, this one to the Phillies’ freshly imported Andrew McCutchen batting leadoff. The Braves’ import Josh Donaldson, on the comeback trail, spent the opening set going 1-for-11.
Harper, the Phillies’ $335 million dollar man, and one who’s going to become a father for the first time in August, spent the opening set going 3-for-9 with all three of his hits for extra bases while taking three walks, one intentional. And every Phillies regular except for catcher Odubel Herrera had at least two hits to open the season. Not to mention Aaron Nola pitching like Aaron Nola on Opening Day and Arrieta, despite not having quite his best, having enough to make it count Sunday night.
The Braves? Only four of their regulars have more than a single hit to open the season. They have only five extra base hits so far, and while seven RBI might impressive any other series those came against those score-happy Phillies. The Braves’ pitching finished the weekend with an 8.63 team ERA next to the Phillies’ 3.67. The Braves surrendered eight home runs; the Phillies, in the National League’s arguable friendliest hitters’ park this side of Wrigley Field, three.
Now of course one weekend doesn’t make a full season, and the other big fish in baseball’s river didn’t look too good opening weekend either. We have the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Indians, the Astros, the Yankees, the Cardinals, and the Nats sitting 1-2. If you’re handing out the prize for the most embarrassing 1-2 of the lot, hand it to the Empire Emeritus: they went 1-2 against the Orioles—the Orioles.
But last year’s Braves never saw a single day below .500. This year’s opened the season under it. Last year’s Mariners never saw a single day below .500, either. This year’s opened their season 5-1 beginning with that jaunt to Japan. (Want some real embarrassment? The Marlins, of all people, opened the season at .500.)
The Mariners didn’t sit on their third-place, never-below-.500 laurels. The Braves couldn’t really afford to sit on their surprise NL East title laurels, but now they need to spend a little more time solving the problems that came in the wake of general manager Alex Anthopolous’s less-than-stellar off-season and a little less time avenging mammoth home runs by punishing the innocent next up.
Because the Phillies are a solid team. They finished opening weekend as the Show’s only undefeated team so far. And they have fun being a team. The Braves aren’t a disaster waiting to happen just yet, but opening weekend wasn’t exactly a rescue attempt. And, yes, this game’s supposed to be fun, the unwritten rules be damned.
But even the most fun fellow on the field will grant that the Braves won’t have an awful lot of fun if they don’t solidify. And soon. The season is long, but it often has a way of turning into a bullet train if your eyes are wide shut.
And guess who play each other sixteen more times the rest of the season? Don’t think for one minute that the Phillies won’t be watching very carefully. “If it happens, it happens,” Hoskins said about further reprises of Sunday’s rough stuff. “It will get taken care of.” Just as long as the NL East dogfight doesn’t turn into gang war.