The Phillies were feeling pretty good when they left town for their nine-game road trip. They had just completed a four-game sweep of the Brewers with a shutout from Zack Wheeler and were in sole possession of first place.

But those feelings were replaced by frustration when the team flew home Sunday night. The Phillies had four key players injured on the trip, lost five of the nine games, and had at least one dugout conversation. The trip started with a 10-run win over Atlanta and ended with Jean Segura being held back from Joe Girardi in the dugout. Monday’s off day seems to come at a perfect time for the Phillies.

“It’s always frustrating to lose,” Rhys Hoskins said. “We battled today, and it’s always not fun to lose those games. I’m sure we were frustrated today but I don’t know if overall we’re frustrated but today, sure. We’ll move back to home and go from there.”

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Spencer Howard seems ready to return to Phillies’ starting rotation

Spencer Howard pitched Sunday in Lackawanna County, and his next start is scheduled for Friday in Syracuse, N.Y. Sunday’s four innings with triple-A Lehigh Valley marked Howard’s longest outing since the Phillies sent him to the minor leagues with a plan to build his arm strength before returning him to the majors as a starting pitcher.

And that plan seems to be nearing completion.

The Phillies are monitoring Howard’s innings this season, meaning every inning he logs in towns such as Moosic, Pa. and Syracuse is an inning he won’t be able to pitch in the majors. Howard has been limited by injuries in two straight seasons, forcing the Phillies to stress caution this year while also making sure their top pitching prospect enters 2022 without restraints.

He was excellent Sunday, striking out eight over four innings and allowing a run on two hits. Meanwhile, Phillies starter Chase Anderson allowed homers to the first two Toronto batters he faced in Dunedin, Fla. before being lifted after recording just four outs.

The Phillies have a need for Howard, who threw 58 pitches and appears ready to pitch four or five innings in a start. He has struck out 14 this month in nine triple-A innings and has allowed one run in his first three starts with the IronPigs.

The Phils do not want to push him much further than the four innings he pitched Sunday as they want to stretch his innings limit — a number they have not publicly revealed — as deep into the season as possible. It would seem a bit foolish to burn any more of his innings in the minor leagues.

“That’s totally out of my control,” said Anderson, whose last three starts have been on the same day Howard pitched at triple A. “I’m glad Spencer is pitching well. He’s a great pitcher and a friend of mine. I got to know him in spring training. But my job is to give this team a chance to win every fifth day, and I’ve done that in my recent starts. Today just wasn’t that day. We’ll see what happens. I just try to control what I can control.”

The Phillies could start Howard on Saturday against the Red Sox, ask him to handle the first four innings, and then use Anderson to bridge the gap to the bullpen. The two pitchers are on the same throwing schedule, so the Phillies could use them as a “piggyback” tandem.

Or they could just move Anderson to a long-relief role and not tie him to Howard’s starts.

Anderson entered Sunday with a 3.77 ERA in his previous three starts. But he has yet to record an out this season in the sixth inning as the Phillies have been wary of trusting him with facing a lineup a third time. Before Sunday’s dud, Anderson had been efficient this season the first two times he navigated a lineup, which would be the most the Phillies would need from him if he pitched in relief.

“I have to be better than this. I know I can be. I have been in recent starts. I have to figure it out and keep moving on,” Anderson said. “ … I have to get us off to a better start and go from there. We’ll figure it out. I’ll be ready in five days.”

The Phillies used Howard last month as a major-league reliever, but they soon found it was a challenge to both get him consistent work and use him in important spots. He was electric on April 21 in picking up four late outs in a one-run win.

But his next outing came three days later with the Phillies trailing by five runs. Howard’s innings are limited and the Phillies burned two of them in a mop-up situation.

So they sent him to triple A, where he could stretch his arm out to be a starting pitcher. When Howard returns to the majors, the Phillies can use him in a controlled situation every fifth day. He will no longer enter with a five-run deficit to simply get his work in. They’ll still be monitoring his innings, but they know the innings will always be important if he’s starting the game.

Now, they have to decide if those innings will be in Syracuse or South Philly. The Phillies had a plan to get Howard back to the majors, and it seems like the time is near.

“It’s a tricky formula,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said before opening day of the team’s plan to limit Howard in 2021 but have him fully ready for 2022. “It’s one that you just need to try and stay on top of. ... And maybe at some point, he pitches a little bit more than we’re originally thinking because he is so healthy and he’s feeling so good. But that will be a juggling act for us all year to accomplish that but also put him in a position where he can start for us next year.”

The rundown

Bob Brookover has more on the “dugout conversation” between Girardi and Segura that overshadowed a 10-8 loss to Toronto.

The Phillies ran out of healthy bench players Sunday, so they had to use an injured Bryce Harper for the final innings of the series finale vs. Toronto. The Phillies started the game with four bench players, all of whom were injured.

Didi Gregorius was unable to play Sunday because of a “huge bump” on his right elbow and the shortstop is trying to determine what caused it. He’s going to have an MRI and other tests when the team returns home.

Important dates

Today: The Phillies are off.

Tomorrow: Zack Wheeler starts series opener vs. Miami, 7:05 p.m.

Wednesday: Zach Eflin pitches the second game in South Philly, 7:05 p.m.

Thursday: Vince Velasquez starts the series finale vs. the Marlins, 7:05 p.m.

Friday: The Phils open a three-game series at home vs. Boston, 7:05 p.m.

Stat of the day

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. reminded Phillies fans this weekend of his father when the Blue Jays slugger homered twice in the three-game series. The two homers were Guerrero’s first in his career against the Phils, meaning he has a lot to hit if he wants to catch his old man.

Guerrero Sr. hit 31 of his 449 career homers against the Phillies, more than he hit against any other team. All but two of which came with the Expos, Guerrero’s team for the first half of his 16-year career. His 1.204 OPS against the Phillies is the most by any opposing player in franchise history. The Phillies are lucky the son is not playing for a division rival like his dad.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @matt_breen.

Question: I see Luke Williams is playing great at triple A. Why isn’t he in the majors yet? — Charles C. via email

Answer: Thanks, Charles. Williams is hitting .370 this season with a .921 OPS through 12 games with triple-A Lehigh Valley. The Phillies have used him in the minors at nearly every position as they’ve been building the 2015 third-rounder’s defensive versatility over the last few seasons. His ability to play almost anywhere would make him a strong utility player, especially if he hits the way he has so far this season.

But Williams is not on the 40-man roster, which makes getting him to the majors complicated. Ronald Torreyes, who is also a versatile utility player, is on the 40-man and is likely headed back soon from the injured list. But if the 24-year-old Williams keeps hitting, the Phillies will find a way to get him onto the roster.