On Saturday, blue-chip prospect Rhys Hoskins struck out on three pitches with runners on first and third and nobody out in the bottom of the eighth in a one-run game.
It was another failure during his forgettable debut weekend. It was also a cause to celebrate. Why?
Because the at-bat reminded you of a young Chase Utley.
Hoskins, a cerebral power hitter with unnerving command of the strike zone, approached the at-bat with the singular purpose of driving in the run from third base. Therefore, he would put a good swing on any pitch he believed he could hit moderately deep in the outfield … or any pitch that, as a righthanded hitter, he could reasonably hit on the ground toward second base.
The first pitch was just such a pitch: A knee-high fastball on the far edge of the strike zone. Hoskins fouled it off. It was the best pitch he would see, and he didn’t put it in play to the right side.
“In that situation, that’s exactly what I was trying to do,” Hoskins said Saturday night. “I’m not pushing the panic button.”
Hoskins doesn’t have a panic button.
The at-bat left him 0-for-12 with two walks in his first three major-league games. He finished the four-game series against the Mets 1-for-13 with three walks and an RBI. He made good contact a few times, but his only base hit was a sad little duck on Sunday that fluttered a few centimeters beyond the reach of first baseman Dominic Smith. The RBI wasn’t a rope, either: In the first inning of that game, with the bases loaded and nobody out, he was a hair faster than Asdrubal Cabrera’s relay throw and beat out a double-play ball. The first RBI and hit are out of the way, but just barely.
“The whole game really is a game of inches,” Hoskins said.
That’s true. But Hoskins, 24, isn’t in the majors because he massages inches. He’s in the bigs because he hits balls for miles.
In his four minor-league seasons Hoskins has a .287 batting average, a .375 on-base percentage, and 93 home runs, 29 of them this season. He understands how to produce, with 337 RBIs, and he sports a .907 OPS. His game causes equal degrees of arousal from both the new school and the old. He’s 6-foot-4, weighs 225 pounds but he’s still athletic enough to move from first base to left field after playing just three games in left in the minors.
His swing is economical, powerful and balanced.
So is his personality.
He simply reeks of Utley, only bigger, stronger and more personable. That might sound overstated, and perhaps a bit optimistic, but not since Utley arrived in Philadelphia in 2003 has a rookie shown this combination of talent, maturity and polish.
Like Chase, Hoskins has a superb idea about how to be a professional hitter. Like Chase, Hoskins has no ego when it comes to selfless execution.
Like Chase, this might take a while.
In his first start, Utley batted eighth in a lineup that included Hall of Fame candidates Jim Thome and Jimmy Rollins, with Mike Lieberthal, Bobby Abreu, and Pat Burrell in their primes. Utley spent the bulk of his first two seasons hitting sixth or lower.
In his first start, Hoskins batted seventh, but unwisely hit cleanup for the rest of the series. His lineup scores the second-fewest runs in baseball.
Still, with all of that protection in the lineup, Utley went 2-for-12 with no walks in his first five games. He hit .239 with a .696 OPS in his first season.
Baseball is hard.
It’s a lot harder at the highest level.
“There haven’t been a whole lot of pitches in the middle of the plate. Guys are willing to nibble and have you get yourself out,” Hoskins said Sunday. “I think, with some pitch selections, at times, I was getting out of my approach, my plan. That’s not a good place to be.”
As a result, his swing is leaking.
“I’ve been a little bit late; that has a lot do with some of the pitches I’ve swung at,” Hoskins said. “Mechanically, I’ve probably gotten long at times. I think that happens when you try to do too much.”
Also, consider The Moment.
The Phillies called up Hoskins on Pete Rose Wall of Fame Weekend; or, rather, the humiliating cancellation thereof. Two weeks ago Rose, while suing over other allegations of serial statutory rapes, admitted to having an illicit relationship with a teenage girl while playing with the Reds.
Hoskins arrived in the middle of that mess. To add to the pressure, his first starts as a cleanup hitter came with Greg Luzinski, Bob Boone, Mike Schmidt, and Garry Maddox in the ballpark. He debuted Thursday in front of almost 28,000, many of them hostile fans of the rival Mets.
Utley faced the Rockies, also on a Thursday, but in front of about 11,000 fewer people. Then Barry Bonds and the Giants arrived the next day.
So, forgive Hoskins that he botched his two big chances Sunday. He quailed in the glare of an unprecedented spotlight. Big deal. Perhaps the upcoming week split between San Diego and San Francisco will give him the time to regain the discipline he had in triple A.
“In those situations, you want do some damage with the ball,” he said. “Every time you step up to the plate, you have some sort of plan, whether it’s pick a side of the plate; or a pitch; or whatever it may be, based on the situation. I haven’t stayed stubborn to that approach.”
At least he recognizes that. At least he has an approach.
On this team, that’s a rare and precious thing.