PHILADELPHIA — A year ago this week, Andrew McCutchen was a San Francisco Giant, Jean Segura was a Seattle Mariner, Bryce Harper was a Washington National and J.T. Realmuto was a Miami Marlin. On Thursday, this quartet, with 14 all-star appearances among them, occupied four of the first five slots in the Philadelphia Phillies’ Opening Day lineup.
It is a new era in Philly, one that is only partially defined by the presence of Harper, the $330 million superstar centerpiece of the Phillies’ breathtaking offseason, who made his debut in his new uniform Thursday. Almost overnight, the team’s lineup has been transformed from one of the worst in the National League to one of the best.
“It’s scary good,” said cleanup hitter Rhys Hoskins, the only holdover among those first five Phillies hitters. “There’s not a deep breath for the opposing pitcher.”
The 2018 Phillies were 11th in the NL in both runs scored (677) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.707), but the 2019 version, at least at first glance, appears to have a chance to produce at a level last reached by the vaunted Phillies teams that included Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and Jayson Werth. The 2011 season was the last time the Phillies finished above .500.
Thursday’s 10-4 Opening Day win over the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park offered a preview of the type of damage the Phillies’ lineup will be capable of this season. McCutchen led off the game with a homer against Braves starter Julio Teheran. Maikel Franco, the No. 8 hitter, smashed a three-run homer in the sixth inning. And in the seventh, after the Braves chose to walk Harper intentionally to load the bases, Hoskins followed with a grand slam to put the game out of reach.
“That’s the presence of Bryce Harper, right?” Phillies Manager Gabe Kapler said. “… You walk Bryce to get to one of the best hitters in baseball, one of the best RBI hitters in baseball, and he comes through in a big way. The middle of the lineup is ferocious.”
McCutchen, the leadoff man, is an on-base machine, with a career on-base percentage of .378 and four seasons above .400. Segura, in the No. 2 spot, is one of the best contact hitters in the game, with a strikeout ratio (10.9 percent of all plate appearances) in 2018 that ranked fourth lowest in the majors among qualified hitters. Harper, of course, is one of the most feared sluggers in the game — who also led the NL in walks in 2018. Hoskins bashed 34 homers in 2018, his first full season in the majors, and Realmuto was a first-time all-star in 2018, a season in which he hit 21 homers and slugged .484.
The Phillies’ lineup is deep enough that their No. 8 hitter Thursday, Franco, has hit 20-plus homers in each of the past three seasons and slugged .467 in 2018.
“What makes our lineup great is the depth,” Kapler said. “Maikel Franco is hitting eighth for us. [He could] hit 20 homers and drive in 80 runs and be a force down there.”
Two years ago, the Phillies’ 2017 Opening Day lineup featured second baseman Cesar Hernandez batting leadoff, center fielder Odubel Herrera in the third spot and Franco batting cleanup. That team, perhaps not surprisingly, lost 96 games and finished last in the NL East. On Thursday, however, those three were hitting seventh, sixth and eighth, respectively — as stark a sign as any of how far the franchise has come in 24 months.
“Those are middle-of-the-lineup guys,” Realmuto said, “and they’re hitting in the bottom of the order. It’s just devastating for an opposing team.”
As recently as last year, the Phillies’ lineup was constantly in flux, with Kapler using 138 combinations (not counting starting pitchers). Herrera, for example, batted in every position from second to eighth. Infielder Scott Kingery batted in every slot except cleanup. But this year, Kapler sounds committed to a more consistent everyday lineup, at least in the upper half.
“If these guys are confident and comfortable [in their assigned lineup slots], then my inclination — and it’s not scientific, just a gut [feeling] — is that they’re going to perform because they’re comfortable. And this year, this is the kind of personnel you can do that with,” Kapler said. “And last year, frankly, we couldn’t. We had to be a little more, I guess, tactical with it.”
Though most of the attention Thursday, naturally, was on Harper, who signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies in late February, the way Opening Day played out was telling. Harper went 0 for 3 with a pair of strikeouts and the intentional walk, but the Phillies still put up 10 runs, eight of which came on homers.
“The guys we have in this lineup, it’s pretty unbelievable,” Harper said. “I walk right there, and Rhys hits the homer. That’s what it’s all about. One through nine, everybody contributed. Pretty awesome.”
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