BALTIMORE >> Bryce Harper will stand out in an All-Star crowd Monday night, just as he did when he used to hit over .300 and his Washington Nationals team used to sit atop the (regular season only) competition.
Likely due to hometown considerations, Harper will be the only repeat performer Monday night in the 2018 MLB Home Run Derby, better known as the event invented to keep ESPN relevant during the summertime’s biggest lull.
What once was a marquee event of league power hitters has more recently turned into a showcase of fresh-faced rising stars. You can’t get much fresher than the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins, who will still be less than a year removed from his major league debut when he lines up against the Derby’s top seed, Milwaukee’s Jesus Aguilar, at Nationals Park.
So while it’s expected to be a short night for the eighth-seeded Hoskins, it’s one he says he’s excited to experience. But not just because he’s brushing elbows and trading microphone chatter with some of the game’s elite.
“It’s cool,” Hoskins said. “I think it’s one of those things (that’s) kind of the same with the team. There’s not a whole lot of national media on us with what we’ve done so far this year. That ball might be starting to roll a little faster now with us being in first place, but it’s cool. I think the more exposure that we can get as a team and an organization will be better for us down the road.”
So these first-place Phillies, who also are a group with so many fresh faces, went on to beat the Orioles in this Thursday night makeup game 5-4. That moved them back on top of the National League East by a half-game over idle Braves, and with a pretty good shot to stay there heading into the All-Star break, since the Phils close the pre-break schedule with a three-game set against the NL doormat Marlins.
Alert the national media.
“I think we have had national exposure,” manager Gabe Kapler countered about his 52-40 team. “We had the Sunday night ESPN game, we have an All-Star and we have a star in the Home Run Derby. We’ve been playing very good baseball, we’re in first place and we’re many games over .500. We have the best home record in the National League. All of those things have garnered and should garner national attention.”
For all their surprising first-half accomplishments — know that the 2017 Phillies were 29-58 entering the All-Star break — and despite the talk that they are in the negotiating mix for a potential trade of elite Oriole Manny Machado before the end of the month, there hasn’t been much national buzz about the Phillies.
Hell, there hasn’t been a ton of summer buzz about the Phillies in Philadelphia, though their average attendance (helped by a June series of sellouts against the Yankees) has ticked up by a few thou per game.
Yet Kapler supported his argument of national support by pointing out how a nice chunk of the 20,100 ticket holders Thursday night — not bad for an unscheduled makeup game — consisted of red-garnished I-95 travelers.
That their loudest cheers were Eagles spelling contests didn’t faze him in making the argument.
“Our fans were here supporting us and we heard them,” Kapler said. “We heard them in the game, we heard the ‘Let’s Go Phillies’ chants and at the end of the game we literally felt our fans stand up and clap as Seranthony (Dominguez) delivered the last pitch of the game.
“It was meaningful, we felt it and it was very much appreciated.”
It stands to reason that Hoskins’ Derby turn will be short-lived on All-Star Eve, and there’s no guarantee that lone All-Star Phillie Aaron Nola will get to see the light of Mid-Summer Exhibition action Tuesday night. But what remains to be seen just beyond the break is how appreciative the front office will be of the Phillies’ first-half efforts. All the speculation about Machado and other chatter illustrates the team’s need for another middle-of-the-lineup run producer (and maybe another veteran starter) as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline looms.
For the overseer of this three-month-long reversal of Philadelphia baseball fortune, however, maybe that kind of buzz isn’t so welcome.
“Players are obviously interested in where they’re going to be a month from now, and who might be added, but again a lot of it is just speculation and most often stuff is just rumors,” Kapler said. “I’ve been traded at the deadline. I know what that feels like. It’s an overwhelming thing, and really, it’s not super useful to be concerned about it, constantly leading up (to the deadline) for the men in this clubhouse.”
Of course, the louder the buzz, the more attractive the notion of Philadelphia as a trade-deadline destination for pending free agents and the like.
“All of this is to say that a veteran presence can be extremely beneficial,” Kapler added. “And on the flip side, it isn’t necessarily beneficial. So choosing the right piece is huge.
“But just to reiterate and be very, very clear, we’re very happy with the group that we have right now. I think we have plenty of veteran leadership. I think we have plenty of talent to get this done.”
Approaching the season’s far turn, it might be hard to argue that point. Perhaps a standing-pat approach would be the most surprising event thus far in this summer of redemption.
“I think what we are is a good baseball team, a humbled baseball team and a hungry baseball team,” Kapler said. “I think that the more exposure we get nationally, the more people will realize that we are hungry, we are humble and we are talented.”
Contact Rob Parent at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ReluctantSE.