It’s a rare Friday off for the Phillies, and well, Joe Girardi sounds like he could use it.
At the end of his video call with reporters after Thursday’s win in Miami, Girardi was asked about Jean Segura, who didn’t stay in the game as part of a double switch after pinch-hitting in the eighth inning. Instead, the Phillies burned another bench player by putting Nick Maton at second base. Was Segura injured?
“We’re going to approach this different,” Girardi said. “I’ve talked to people in our organization. Just a manager’s decision. And I’m not going to share anything — who’s available, who’s not available — because I think it’s somewhat unfair to us. Just like if you were to do something, you’re not necessarily going to share it with a rival reporter. So that’s the way we’re going to handle it. Just manager’s decision.”
Girardi’s seemingly new policy about injury updates came a few days after he caught flak in the media for lying about Bryce Harper’s bruised left forearm for what he described as competitive reasons. It stinks, but it happens. Girardi is hardly the first official of a team to withhold information about a player’s health.
Here’s the thing: If not for MLB’s COVID-19 protocols that limit access to players after the game, Segura would’ve been asked directly in the clubhouse if he’s OK. Until that can happen again, Girardi can be as secretive as he wants.
Want to know if Segura’s healthy? Wait until the Phillies post the lineup Saturday morning in Tampa Bay.
You’re signed up to get this newsletter in your inbox every weekday during the Phillies season. If you like what you’re reading, tell your friends it’s free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber. Thank you for reading.
— Scott Lauber (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Spencer Howard eats his way to steadier velocity
From the moment he walked off the mound last Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park, Spencer Howard had five days to figure out why his fastball velocity dropped by nearly 3 mph between the first inning and the fourth. His arm feels fine, so he studied his mechanics, considered his conditioning, and even looked into his eating habits.
And that was when the Phillies’ rookie right-hander decided that the problem is nothing a few bananas can’t fix.
“It’s just eating more and eating closer to the game,” Howard said after holding the Marlins to one run and pitching into the fifth inning for the first time this season in Thursday’s 3-2 victory in Miami. “Talking to some of the starters, the other guys, I realized that I would kind of shut it down a couple hours before the game. And that’s exactly what not to do.”
So, Howard decided to change up his snack game. Roughly 20 minutes before he went out to warm up Thursday, he ate a banana with peanut butter. Then, between innings, he ducked into the clubhouse and chowed down on a protein bar that was chock full of honey and sugar.
“Just simple sugars,” he said, “and a little bit of calories.”
The result: Howard’s fastest pitch of the fifth inning, a 93.7-mph heater to the Marlins’ Sandy Leon, was only a few ticks below his top velocity in the first inning (94.6 mph). He topped out at 95.8 mph in the second inning and averaged 93.5.
Most importantly, he looked strong for most of a 66-pitch outing that was marred only by a loss of command in the fifth inning.
“I thought today was a step forward,” Girardi said.
The Phillies are trying to achieve multiple goals with Howard this season. After he was hampered by shoulder issues in the last two seasons, they want him to gradually build a workload while also pitching meaningful innings at the major league level. They also want the 24-year-old to continue to develop into a full-fledged member of the rotation next season.
It’s a lot. And there are frequent reminders, such as the precipitous decline in his velocity against the Boston Red Sox last weekend, that Howard is a work in progress in everything that he does, from preparing for a start to making adjustments within one.
Howard said after the Red Sox start that he didn’t give himself time to recover after running to first base for the final out of an inning. Going out for the fifth inning against the Marlins might have led to some of his command issues. As he becomes more accustomed to pitching into the fifth and even the sixth innings, he believes he will get a better handle on what it takes to maintain his command.
“It’s chicken or the egg, mechanics or just speeding up,” Howard said. “I do think my tendency is to have more effort, but it’s a matter of putting that effort into the right places. [Thursday] I think I just snowballed a little bit of bad mechanics on top of each other and then trying too hard to fix it and in turn making it worse.”
Pitching coach Caleb Cotham said last week that the Phillies would “talk to as many people as we can” to get to the bottom of Howard’s velocity fluctuation. Girardi described it as something “we all try to make sense out of and we can’t.”
The next few days will probably be spent digging into Howard’s mechanics to improve his command.
“I know definitely for me moving forward that’s going to be my focus over the next four-ish days,” Howard said. “A lot of work out there to try to sync back into my legs more and be a little more efficient. I think that’ll come with time.
“It’s definitely progress, continuing to just push the envelope, conditioning-wise. I think coming off the last start and this one, it’s trending in the right direction.”
One thing Howard won’t change is his new pregame meal plan. Bring on the bananas and peanut butter.
“It’s just trying to get my body the fuel that it needs up closer to the start,” Howard said. “I will definitely be eating it again. I think maybe next time I’ll even eat a little bit more. We’ll see.”
It was easy to forget about Ranger Suárez over the last year. But with three scoreless innings Thursday, he reminded everyone of how important he could be to the Phillies’ pitching staff, as Matt Breen writes.
Remember when Odúbel Herrera was fourth on the center-field depth chart? Thursday, he was fourth in the Phillies’ batting order. Bob Brookover has more on Herrera’s recent run of solid play.
Rafael Marchán’s bold pickoff throw highlighted a rare impressive game for the Phillies’ defense. It also offered a glimpse into why the organization likes the 22-year-old rookie catcher so much.
Tomorrow: Zack Wheeler opens two-game series at Tampa Bay, 1:10 p.m.
Sunday: Zach Eflin faces the Rays, 1:10 p.m.
Monday: Vince Velasquez gets Memorial Day start in Cincinnati, 2:10 p.m.
June 4: Phillies return home to face the Nationals, 7:05 p.m.
Stat of the day
Since 2015, when MLB began using Statcast, the Phillies have hit two homers on fastballs that registered at least 99.8 mph. Guess the hitters.
Bryce Harper? Nope.
J.T. Realmuto? Try again.
Rhys Hoskins? Bingo.
Hoskins went deep on a 99.8-mph fastball from Marlins right-hander Brian Ellington on Sept. 12, 2017, at Citizens Bank Park. His homer Tuesday night in Miami came on a 99.8-mph heater from Sandy Alcantara.
From the mailbag
Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.
Question: I look forward to reading each installment of Extra Innings. Thanks to the hard-working team of reporters covering the Phillies for the Inquirer. Aaron Nola has followed another disappointing September with a so-so start to 2021. Why do you think he’s struggling? He looks much more like a mid-rotation piece than an ace. — Bill C., via email
Answer: Thanks, Bill, for your kind words and for being a loyal reader.
One thing that stands out is that Nola has struggled in the first inning (7.36 ERA). But after talking with Cotham last weekend, it’s clear to me that the Phillies believe Nola has pitched better than his numbers, which, as you point out, aren’t up to his usual high standard.
None of the Phillies pitchers has been helped by poor defense. But it seems to have impacted Nola more than most, as evidenced by the gap between his ERA (3.72) and FIP (2.98). FIP measures a pitcher’s performance based on strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and homers allowed, then estimates league-average defense for everything else. A considerably lower FIP indicates that a pitcher is giving up hits that ordinarily are turned into outs.