By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer

PHILADELPHIA — First, Spencer Strider lost a baseball. Then Rhys Hoskins lost his mind. And finally, finally — after 11 long, postseason-less years — Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia lost all sense of reality.

In the bottom of the third inning of NLDS Game 3, Hoskins annihilated a first-pitch Strider fastball 394 feet over the wall in left field and down onto an untethered, cloud-nine-surfing throng of Philadelphia sports fanatics.

Gone off the bat. Not a doubt in the universe. Just a thwack, a millisecond of silence and a thunderous roar of total catharsis. Before the ball had a chance to leave the infield, Hoskins threw his arms skyward in celebration and turned toward the dugout. Then, in a total out-of-body experience, the longest-tenured hitter on the Phillies spiked his bat with the force of a million jawns.

Hoskins’ three-run blast — which gave the Phillies a comfortable 4-0 lead — was a baseball exorcism. It was a tension-relieving, demon-purging, frustration-easing moonshot for both Hoskins and the entire franchise. It was the defining and deafening moment of a massive 9-1 Phillies victory, one that puts them just one win away from the most unlikely of trips to the NLCS.

“Not a bad day at work,” the first baseman joked to FOX Sports after the game.

After a resounding 3-0 Braves win in Game 2 evened the series, Atlanta sent the flame-throwing right-hander Strider to the hill Friday. The mustachioed rookie spent most of his debut season befuddling opposing hitters with a speed-of-sound heater and a hellacious slider, but he hadn’t pitched in 26 days due to a left oblique issue.

As a result, Strider’s health and effectiveness were total mysteries to anyone outside the Braves clubhouse. Atlanta manager Brian Snitker waited until late Friday morning to even announce Strider as the confirmed starter. Five innings from him felt unlikely, but the Braves would’ve been happy to get three or four out of their breakout star.

So when Strider came out in the first two innings throwing high-90s, looking like his normal soul-snatching self, the Braves must have breathed a sigh of relief.

That was short-lived.

Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper take Spencer Strider deep

Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper take Spencer Strider deep

Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins each homered off Atlanta starter Spencer Strider to give the Phillies an early 6-0 lead over the Braves.

Upon returning to the mound for the third inning, Strider’s fastball was down 3 mph. But after a leadoff walk to Brandon Marsh, he battled back to punch out Jean Segura on eight pitches.

Then came the most crucial at-bat of the game. Nine-hole hitter and rookie shortstop Bryson Stott, a dude who has known Harper since childhood, fouled off four consecutive fastballs with two strikes before looping a slider down the line in right to plate Marsh for Philly’s first run of the game.

With a base open, the Braves opted to intentionally walk the struggling Kyle Schwarber (0-for-16 in the postseason), preferring the same-sided matchup with Hoskins, who waited on deck. At the time, the move made sense. Hoskins — 1-for-18 in the playoffs, 2-for-37 dating to the regular season — was the only Phillie scuffling worse than Schwarber.

In fact, that difficult stretch at the plate led many Phillies fans to call for Hoskins to be moved down the order. His untimely defensive misplay in Game 2, which led to Atlanta’s go-ahead run, made things even worse. One fan walked by the press box early in the game and screamed, “We need to trade Hoskins.”

Hoskins had gone from Philly sports cult hero to public enemy No. 1. After a first-inning strikeout against Strider, the crowd of 45,538 sent him back to the dugout under a hailstorm of boos.

But with a wallop of a first-pitch fastball, Hoskins changed the narrative and gave his franchise a highlight that will play on the Jumbotron forever. Understandably, he says he blacked out during the moment.

“I didn’t even know what I did until a couple innings later,” he admitted afterward.

It’s a miracle that his bat-spike didn’t bore a hole into the turf, slice through the earth’s core and come out the other side of the globe. There was so much behind that moment: so much frustration, so many embarrassing Phillies performances, so many minor-league baseball games, so many nights spent dreaming about what-if, about what could one day be.

“Myself, [Zach] Eflin and [Aaron] Nola often talk about how sweet it will be to finally play in October,” Hoskins shared on a more relaxing afternoon a few weeks ago. “How awesome it will feel to get over the hump.”

On a delightful fall afternoon, against the defending world champs, Hoskins made it all real.

Two batters later, the club’s $330 million man, Bryce Harper, followed with a rousing, two-run shot of his own, sending the crowd back into a frenzy. In the seventh, Philly poured on three more against Atlanta’s bullpen on a Harper double and a Nick Castellanos single.

Nola, the team’s longest-tenured player, delivered six fabulous innings, his only blemish an unearned run that was the result of a Hoskins error. The bullpen held it together and tossed up zeros. Very few times did the sell-out crowd ever sit down. It was, quite simply, a wonderful day to be at the ballyard.

The win did not clinch the Phillies a series win, though it certainly helped. Atlanta has been here before. The Braves are an experienced, formidable team that could very easily rattle off two consecutive wins and crush Philly’s dreams.

But on Friday, none of the souls in red at Citizens Bank Park was thinking about tomorrow. This was a day to remember, an unforgettable, resounding, joy-sparking victory.

And nobody, not a single Phillies fan, was booing Rhys Hoskins on the way out.

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.

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