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J.T. Realmuto homers Phillies over Mets, who passed over him this offseason

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 4/8/2021 Matt Breen, The Philadelphia Inquirer
a baseball player holding a bat on a field: Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto of the Phillies celebrate after his 3-run home run against the Mets in the fifth inning. © CHARLES FOX/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto of the Phillies celebrate after his 3-run home run against the Mets in the fifth inning.

The New York Mets saved the baseball Tuesday night after the last out of their first win of the season, planning to present it to Steve Cohen to mark his first victory since buying the team over the winter.

So perhaps they should have sent someone Wednesday to the right-field seats at Citizens Bank Park to track down another keepsake for Cohen after J.T. Realmuto — whom the hedge-fund billionaire passed on during the winter — crushed a three-run homer to push the Phillies toward an 8-2 win.

It was easy to imagine over the offseason that this week — the Mets’ first visit of the year to South Philly — would feature Realmuto wearing blue and orange in his return to town. The Mets, once Cohen emerged last summer as the franchise’s likely buyer, were pegged to be big spenders.

They needed a catcher and the game’s premier catcher happened to be a free agent. It was a perfect match.

But it never came to be. The Mets were in a hurry to fill their need and Realmuto wanted to see his market take shape. The Mets instead signed catcher James McCann in December for $40 million, which was $75 million less than the Phillies gave Realmuto a month later.

The Mets still had a strong offseason as they ended up trading for superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor and signing him to a $341 million extension. Cohen, who is worth $14 billion, allocated his money elsewhere after skipping on Realmuto.

But it still had to sting a little on Wednesday when Realmuto lifted Jacob Barnes’ fastball to the right-field seats.

“I know a lot of teams wished they could’ve gotten him,” Phillies starter Aaron Nola said. “But fortunately, we got him for the next several years. Just a good guy. A good guy to work with. A super athlete and a great baseball player. Great catcher. He’s a special teammate.”

The Phillies have won five of their first six games, winning series against two divisional rivals. The start of their schedule presented a stiff test. So far, they’re passing it. They’ll enjoy a day off Thursday in Atlanta atop the National League East before opening a three-game series Friday with the reigning division champs. They swept the Braves to start the season, but this weekend will be another test.

The Phillies relied on their pitching for their first four wins before their offense sparked Wednesday’s victory. Alec Bohm and Rhys Hoskins homered in the first inning as the Phillies scored four times, providing some comfort for Nola on a day when he didn’t have his best stuff. Nola allowed just one run but only lasted four innings.

He loaded the bases in the fourth and escaped without damage, but his pitch count climbed to 92. The Phillies would ask their bullpen for 15 outs. Their four-run first inning no longer seemed to be enough.

“It was a grind,” Nola said. “They battled me pretty hard. I think guys on base every inning hurt me. I had a couple walks, a couple leadoff guys get on. A couple hard-hit balls, a few infield singles, but they put it in the right spot. Just one of those days when I had to battle out there. I had to do everything I could today to keep the [Mets’ runs off him] at 1. Overall, we got the win and that’s what matters.”

Hoskins started the fifth with a double to left field. Bryce Harper followed with a perfectly placed bunt down the first-base line and slid head-first into the bag. He had caught the Mets by surprise and the Phillies had two runners on base with no outs for the catcher they waited to sign this offseason.

“That’s playing the game, to me,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said of Harper’s bunt. “I think it’s important that you always try to play the game. He took advantage of a situation and it led to a big inning. You don’t always have to hit doubles or hit home runs to be productive. To me, it was really smart and he executed it really well.”

While the Phillies had started the season with four straight wins, they had homered just two times in their first five games. It was not the way they expected to win games this season. Yes, the Phillies will need pitching to reach October. But the route there becomes quite difficult if the offense does not produce the way it was built to.

And that’s why it was comforting to see Realmuto drive a first-pitch fastball 392 feet to give the Phillies a six-run lead. Cohen once paid $410,000 for the ball that skipped past Bill Buckner in 1986 and helped the Mets win the World Series. Maybe the fan who caught Realmuto’s home run on Wednesday could see if Cohen is interested. After passing on Realmuto this winter, a souvenir is as close as Cohen can get to the baseball’s best catcher.

“I think he loves it here and we’re all extremely happy that J.T.’s here,” Girardi said. “All the fans. The front office. The whole Phillies group. The players. The coaches. Everybody loves J.T.”

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