It began at 4:49 p.m. Sunday with a fouled-off, 94-mph fastball. It ended nearly 90 minutes later without the storybook outcome that Spencer Howard or Phillies officials wanted.
Make no mistake, though: It was a big moment for an organization that needs more of them.
It isn’t every year that the Phillies graduate a homegrown pitcher to their starting rotation. Since 1998, in fact, they have drafted only five pitchers in the first two rounds — Brett Myers, Gavin Floyd, Cole Hamels, Kyle Drabek, and Aaron Nola — who made more than one start in the majors.
So although Howard gave up four runs, including a pair of ambushed first-pitch homers to Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr., in 4 2/3 innings of a doubleheader-sweep-completing 8-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves — after a 5-2 defeat with Vince Velasquez on the mound in the first game — the mere presence of the 24-year-old top prospect on the mound at Citizens Bank Park represented progress.
“I was hoping for a complete-game shutout. That’s what everybody would dream about,” Howard said. “But just being able to compete at the highest level, a dream come true.”
It’s not yet clear when Howard will start again. For now, manager Joe Girardi said Velasquez is scheduled to start Friday night against the New York Mets while noting that team officials haven’t actually discussed it yet.
“We didn’t come into today and say we were going to make a change in the rotation,” Girardi said.
It won’t matter much if the Phillies don’t improve a bullpen that makes leads combustible and the offense doesn’t produce hits with runners in scoring position to sustain rallies that aren’t punctuated by home runs.
But Howard didn’t appear overwhelmed by either the moment or the competition, even though he lacked his best stuff. To wit: Despite not generating a swing and miss with his fastball, he calmly escaped a two-on, none-out jam in the first inning.
“I wouldn’t say I felt sharp,” Howard said. “Just a little out of sync with my mechanics. I left a lot of balls over the plate and mistakes get hit in the big leagues.”
Howard hadn’t pitched since July 31 in a scrimmage at the Phillies’ satellite camp in Lehigh Valley. He skipped his scheduled turn Wednesday and threw an elongated bullpen session Thursday to get ready for a start that he suspected he might make but didn’t know for certain until Friday night when he got a call from minor-league director Josh Bonifay.
“It seemed like I was the last person to know in the United States that I was going to pitch today,” said Howard, whose family watched on television in Templeton, Calif. “But a bunch of my buddies texted me. Friends and family were really excited, so I kind of got that feeling. I tried to stay as even-keeled as possible and not let the moment get too big.”
Howard did have the usual first-start jitters, and they manifested in the location of his pitches. Freeman, the Braves’ All-Star first baseman, noted that Howard’s pitches were up in the strike zone more often than they had seen on video from his minor-league starts.
As a result, the Braves were aggressive. Of the 22 batters that Howard faced, 13 swung at the first pitch. Freeman jumped on a fastball and drove it the opposite way to left field for a two-run homer to open the scoring in the third inning. Acuna, who hit three homers in the two games, reached for a first-pitch slider on the outer half and launched it the other way to right field to make it 3-0 in the fifth.
“I think he was a little excited,” Freeman said. “His offspeed pitches were a little up in the zone. His changeup was up a lot. It’s hard to judge anybody off their big-league debut. He was so fired up. But he’s got a really good arm. I like his stuff.”
Indeed, Howard had flashes. Freeman noted a nasty changeup that fooled Nick Markakis and the 15-mph difference in velocity from the fastball to the changeup.
Howard departed with two out in the fifth inning and Freeman on third base after a one-out triple. Trevor Kelley promptly allowed the run to score by giving up a double to Travis d’Arnaud.
The Braves poured it on in the sixth inning against Kelley and lefty Austin Davis, just as they did in the fifth inning of the first game. In 16 pitches, the Braves scored five runs against Velasquez and relievers Deolis Guerra and Adam Morgan.
The bullpen allowed eight runs in the two games and now has an unsightly 8.10 ERA. As a group, Phillies relievers have allowed 44 hits in 30 innings.
Maybe Howard can help as a multi-inning reliever in the bullpen. Perhaps he will hold on to a spot in the rotation and push Velasquez into the bullpen.
But Howard provided a highlight on an otherwise bleak day for the Phillies when he struck out Marcell Ozuna with a slider on his 81st and final pitch of the game.