Kepner: Rhys Hoskins’ new life with Brewers begins in a familiar old setting

NEW YORK — Rhys Hoskins couldn’t quite escape the only organization he’d ever known. There he was on Friday, by his locker in the Milwaukee Brewers’ clubhouse after a victory on Opening Day, and who was playing on the TV in the clubhouse?

The Philadelphia Phillies. And not only that, they were hosting Spencer Strider and the Atlanta Braves, the very setting for the standout moment of Hoskins’ career: the primal bat slam that punctuated a playoff homer on the way to the World Series in 2022.

Hoskins’ Phillies career would end the next spring training, cruelly and abruptly, when he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament fielding a ground ball. As Hoskins spent his final season before free agency rebuilding his left knee, the Phillies’ cornerstone, Bryce Harper, learned first base in his absence.

So Hoskins moved on, signing with Milwaukee in January for two years and $34 million. He still felt fairly normal, even during batting practice at Citi Field before his Brewers debut. Then the game started.

“Once I got out there and stood in the box, it was like, ‘All right, been through a lot of last year, both physically and mentally,’” Hoskins said. “We’ve got some new stuff in my life, in a new place, but at the end of the day, we’re still trying to do the same thing – and that’s win a baseball game. So I’m happy to do that today.”

Hoskins didn’t have much impact on the Brewers’ 3-1 victory over the Mets: He grounded into a double play, popped out and struck out. But he batted cleanup, played crisp defense, and demonstrated the kind of approach the Brewers will need to defend their NL Central crown.

After drawing a walk with one out in the eighth inning, Hoskins slid hard into second base on a grounder by Willy Adames, avoiding the double play and keeping the inning alive. Hoskins kept his spikes low — this was not Hal McRae’s airborne body block in 1977 — but still made contact with Jeff McNeil, the Mets’ fiery second baseman.

McNeil stood over Hoskins, screaming at him, and Hoskins let him vent. He’s seen plenty of McNeil, and that’s just what he does. Replay upheld the legal slide, and Hoskins got the best of the punchless fracas that followed: Facing McNeil from a distance, he rubbed his cheeks with his knuckles, the universal symbol for taunting a crybaby.

“I’ve played in this ballpark a bunch,” Hoskins said. “He just seems to be complaining when things aren’t going well, and I think that was kind of one of those moments. Maybe lost in the heat of the game a little bit, but I think it’s just playing the game hard and playing it the right way.”

The infield dirt seemed especially hard anyway; from the first inning on, the Brewers’ Christian Yelich said, players were reminding each other not to overslide when attempting a steal. But whatever the conditions, Hoskins’ slide proved a point to a team with 12 players who had never made an Opening Day roster before.

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Rhys Hoskins made his first MLB appearance in over a year on Friday. (Mary DeCicco / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

“That shows what Rhys is about,” manager Pat Murphy said. “He’s a big-league ballplayer having a tough day at the plate his first day back in a year. And he sent the message to all the young kids on this team that even when you’re not having a day you like at the plate, ‘I’m gonna play hard. I’m gonna do the little things that make the game what it is today.’”

What it was, for the Brewers, was pretty much perfect:

• Freddy Peralta and three relievers combined on the first Opening Day one-hitter in franchise history. Peralta, who watched former teammate Corbin Burnes dominate for Baltimore on Thursday (“He was looking awesome, as always,” Peralta said.) allowed a walk and a second-inning homer to Starling Marte, striking out eight.

• Yelich, who took the 7 train to the ballpark, went 3-for-4 with a homer and finally got a hit in his first at-bat on Opening Day. (“I was 0-for-10,” he said, “so we had to make it to the second decade to get that first one.”)

• Catcher William Contreras picked a runner off first in the second inning, and second baseman Brice Turang made a nifty, across-the-body throw for the first out of the ninth.

• Rookie right fielder Jackson Chourio collected his first career hit, stolen base and run batted in, and hauled in a windblown drive by Marte at the wall to end the seventh inning. The ball from his first hit — a seventh-inning single — was in a case at his locker after the game, and Chourio said he’d give it to his father, Jackson Sr.

Chourio signed an eight-year, $82 million contract in December, a record deal for a player with no major-league service. He earned his way onto the roster in spring training, and Murphy, in his debut as Brewers manager, wanted to bat him leadoff.

But Murphy wasn’t sure if that would be too big a burden for day one, so he asked Yelich what he thought. Yelich endorsed the plan.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, do it — it’s better just to get it out of the way instead of sitting out there thinking about it for a couple of innings,’” Yelich said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re bringing him here, so let’s run him out and see what he’s got and let him get that first at-bat and the jitters away.’ He had a great at-bat.”

Chourio worked a four-pitch walk and stole second base. In his last time up, he beat out a double play on a run-scoring grounder. At 20 years and 18 days old, Chourio became the youngest player ever to drive in a run and steal a base in his major-league debut, according to MLB’s Sarah Langs.

Langs also noted that only three players in the divisional era (since 1969) have started on Opening Day at a younger age than Chourio: Robin Yount, Ken Griffey Jr. and Adrian Beltre. All are in the Hall of Fame.

“My brother and my parents, they were all super happy, and even happier that they could spend a moment with me,” Chourio, through an interpreter, said of his cheering section on Friday. “Extremely happy, just as a family.”

The whole Brewers family felt the same way, Hoskins included. He didn’t linger long on that Phillies game playing on the clubhouse TV. To the Mets, it seemed, he might as well have still been a Phillie. But that’s not Hoskins’ problem.

“The Brewers are 1-0,” he said. “That’s all I know.”

(Top photo of Rhys Hoskins: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

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