HOUSTON — When the Philadelphia Phillies speak of their spiritual leader’s long, bumpy journey from the bottom to the top, it is not hyperbole.
Chances are, Game 1 of the World Series in Houston on Friday night will mean more to Rhys Hoskins than it will to anyone else. On the night of his major league debut in 2017, the Phillies were clobbered by the Mets, 10-0. Just called up from Class AAA on that August evening, Hoskins struck out in his first at-bat and grounded into a double play in his next.
The Phillies owned the game’s worst record at the time at 42-70 and finished at 66-96. The year before, they had lost 91 games. Two years earlier, 99.
There is a reason Bryce Harper refers to Hoskins as Captain and the Phillies root for him as hard as anyone.
“I think Rhys Hoskins in many ways epitomizes what we are as a club,” Dave Dombrowski, the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, said on Sunday as the club celebrated its eighth National League pennant. “Because at times, he’s had a couple of moments where he’s had miscues in the field, but he bounces back. He’s resilient. He’s tough.
“And if anybody appreciates what’s going on here, he’s one of those guys because he’s been here the whole time. He’s seen what’s necessary to make this happen.”
Hoskins makes an error, then he smashes a homer. He’s booed, then he’s cheered. He’s up, down and back up again. That’s not simply encompassing his career, this season or this month. He squeezed all of that into Games 3 and 4 of the N.L. Championship Series against San Diego.
“First timer being in the postseason,” he said in Philadelphia last weekend, almost in wonder. “It all happens fast. As soon as the game’s over, it’s on to the next. There’s travel back and forth. There’s obviously tons of information. A lot of stuff goes on off the field before the games and postgames.”
Hoskins and Aaron Nola, Philadelphia’s Game 1 starter, are among the last vestiges of that 96-loss team five years ago. After his rocky debut, Hoskins went on to set a major league record by cracking 11 home runs in his first 18 games. He finished 2017 with 18 homers, the most by any major leaguer whose season debut came on Aug. 1 or later. The previous record was set by the Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who had 13 after he returned from military service in Korea in 1953.
“He kind of got thrown into the role of the face and leader and speaker of that clubhouse for years while we weren’t making the playoffs, and he handled it so well,” said infielder Scott Kingery, who is not on the Phillies’ postseason roster but roomed with Hoskins in the minor leagues and was a groomsman in his wedding in 2019. “I think he learned through the years what it takes to play in Philly and what the fans love to see out of their players.”
Upward mobility, both personally and with a team, is familiar territory for Hoskins. A three-sport athlete in high school in Sacramento, he wound up playing baseball at Sacramento State because it was the only school that offered him a scholarship.
“We offered him books, tuition and fees initially,” Reggie Christiansen, the Sacramento State coach, said in a telephone interview this week. “As I saw him play more, we felt like we needed to give him more. So we increased the offer as the summer went along. In today’s world, he probably doesn’t end up here. But back then he wasn’t on the travel circuit, he wasn’t going to Perfect Game events, all the things that are out there now. He really just played baseball in the spring.”
As Christiansen recalls, Hoskins did not have a very good year as a high school senior, and he wasn’t that impressive in summer ball before his freshman year of college.
“I tell our players this all the time: He was 9 for 53 his freshman year in fall ball for us,” Christiansen said. “He wasn’t in our opening day lineup as a freshman. He didn’t crack our lineup until game five or six. Then he homered twice, and never got out of the lineup.”
The Phillies drafted him in the fifth round in 2014 after Hoskins led the Hornets to a Western Athletic Conference championship, a WAC tournament title and the N.C.A.A. regionals — all firsts for the school. And for all of Hoskins’s emphasis on winning this month after all the losing in Philadelphia, he had the same drive back then, too. The Hornets won that season in no small part because Hoskins had given most of his scholarship money back following his sophomore season so the team could sign Alex Palsha, a pitcher who emerged as a key piece and eventually played five years in the Mets’ organization.
Several of Hoskins’s Sacramento State teammates, along with their coach, traveled to San Diego last week to watch Hoskins make his debut in a league championship series. They were not surprised to find the same, caring person they’ve always known — the guy who used some of his bonus money to purchase championship rings for the team, but swore Christiansen to secrecy. The coach finally spilled the beans at a banquet several years later.
“He has a tremendous sense of being able to be present with people he cares about,” Christiansen said. “It’s never about him. He can put the phone away and be engaged with friends and former teammates at a level where he’s in the N.L.C.S. and he’s still asking friends how they’re doing.”
The Phillies fine-tuned him in the minors, introducing, among other things, a leg kick to help with his timing at the plate. Playing catch-up from time lost to football and basketball in high school, Hoskins requested a winter ball assignment in 2015 and wound up playing with Sydney in the Australian Baseball League.
“It’s unbelievable,” Kingery said. “It seems like I text him every other day now during this run. I have chills just thinking about it. These are moments that have been building up to this his whole career. In the biggest spot, on the biggest stage possible, stadium packed and for him to come up big is just incredible to watch.”
But it hasn’t all been big homers and standing ovations. Though he has five home runs and 11 R.B.I. in 11 postseason games, he is batting only .182 with 14 strikeouts. His Game 2 misplay on a Matt Olson ground ball in the Phillies’ division series opened the door for an Atlanta victory and Philadelphia boo-birds, but he came back with an emphatic three-run homer in Game 3 that set the stage for the series win. It was such an emotional moment that he uncharacteristically spiked his bat into the ground so hard that Kyle Schwarber teased him later about replacing the divot, as if he was on a golf course.
“Then, halfway around the bases you see him start to sprint,” Christiansen said. “That’s who he is, not trying to show anybody up, a tremendous respect for that game. It was like, ‘Whoa, what just happened?’”
Kingery, who roomed with Hoskins and his then-fiancée, Jayme, during those spring trainings to know his friend’s competitive side, noticed something else as well.
“What I saw was the swing of his career,” Kingery said. “A defining moment in Philly for him, an iconic moment for him as a Phillie. A lot of emotion, first time in the playoffs, with the energy of the crowd and doing it on the big stage.”
A similar sequence — sans bat spike — happened in the N.L.C.S., when he botched a ground ball at first base in Game 3 but then smashed a pair of two-run homers in Game 4 and another two-run blast in Game 5 to help lift the Phillies into the World Series.
“He comes prepared to be the best player he can each day, no matter if he’s bad the day before or in that moment,” Harper said, adding: “We believe in him. We all believe in what he can do.”
For Hoskins, the longest-tenured Phillies position player, Game 1 begins his final charge toward the ghosts of Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and the rest of the celebrated 2008 World Series champion Phillies.
“I’ve got to hear stories about those guys since 2014 when I was drafted, right?” he said. “That’s the standard here. For good reason. They have future Hall of Famers, postseason legends, all of it. What an example to follow.
“But it’s just been really, really cool to see this group in particular really just write their own story. We as a group, I think this city, just by the way that they showed up these past couple weekends, I think will be talking about this group for a long time.”