The 14th pitch Spencer Howard threw Saturday afternoon was a 97.3 mph fastball as his velocity -- at least in the first inning of a 5-2 win over Washington -- was buzzing. Two pitches later, the inning was over and Howard looked the part, retiring three of the first four batters he faced.
But the Phillies have not been concerned this season about how their prized right-hander looks in the first inning. Instead, they continue to decipher why Howard’s command becomes erratic and velocity regularly dips after a couple innings.
And that search continues after Howard lost his command in the third inning and his velocity plummeted. The final fastball Howard threw -- his 47th pitch -- was just 91.1 mph. His next pitch hit a batter, prompting Joe Girardi to lift Howard after he recorded just seven outs.
“It does seem like there’s a wall that I just need to push through,” Howard said. “I don’t know if it’s physical, mental, mechanical, or whatnot. It’s something to work on for sure.”
Howard allowed one hit, walked two, and struck out two in 2⅓ innings. The Phillies planned Saturday for Howard to throw 80-85 pitches. Instead, he threw 48 in the shortest start of his brief major-league career.
Howard’s average fastball velocity started at 94.9 mph in the first, dropped to 94.4 mph in the second, and finished at 92.57 in the third.
“I’m racking my brain too, man. I can’t really put my finger on it,” Howard said. “I’ll for sure be working on it.”
His short start could have spiraled the game out of control, but Ranger Suárez -- just like he did last week in Miami -- extinguished the rally he inherited from Howard. Suárez logged three scoreless innings and has yet to allow an earned run this season in 17⅓ innings. The three batters who reached against Suárez reached on two errors and a hit by pitch.
The Phillies, manager Joe Girardi said, will likely continue to have Suárez and Howard pitch on the same day.
“If they want to combine me with Spencer whenever he starts, that’s totally fine,” Suárez said. “I just want to help the team win. Spencer is a great pitcher. He’s very talented. Things haven’t worked out for him as much as we all would like to but I have 100% confidence that he’s going to be OK. He’s going to be way better for us.”
Suárez kept the game together, giving the Phillies a chance to score four times in the fourth with a rally punctuated by Andrew McCutchen’s three-run homer. Suárez again was excellent, but his three innings of work was not enough to erase the concern that surrounds Howard.
“It’s a tough game when you can’t control your pitches,” said Howard, who threw just 26 of his 48 pitches for strikes.
Howard’s next rotation turn would be next weekend against the Yankees, but the Phillies could decide to return Howard to triple A and replace him with either Suárez or Bailey Falter, a 24-year-old left-hander who has a 1.91 ERA in six starts at triple A.
The Phillies want to use Howard as much as possible this season in the majors while limiting his workload. Why waste his pitches in triple A? But his command and velocity issues might warrant sending him to Lehigh Valley for more development and to determine the root of his problem.
“I think he’s developing,” Joe Girardi said. “When you pitch in games like this, I think you’re always going to learn stuff and you’re going to learn to try and use everything you have. Today, he just struggled.”
The four runs the Phillies scored in the fourth inning came after the Nationals made an error and hit Bryce Harper with a pitch. The Phillies are baseball’s worst defensive team this season, but now they had a chance to capitalize on an opponent’s mistake.
Jean Segura scored from second and Harper moved from first to third on a bloop single by Rhys Hoskins as the Phils were crisp on the basepaths a day after Travis Jankowski was caught off second base in the ninth inning. And then McCutchen tagged Joe Ross for a two-out homer.
The Nationals gave the Phils an extra out and McCutchen cashed in.
“That’s what it’s all about,” McCutchen said. “We don’t get many opportunities like that so when we do, you have to be able to capitalize. We we’re able to do that.”
Harper was activated from the injured list before the game after missing two weeks with a sore wrist. He went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored. Harper initially suffered the injury on April 28 when a 97 mph fastball hit his face and ricocheted off his wrist.
Pitchers began attacking him with fastballs, which Harper -- who has crushed fastballs in his career -- struggled to handle. Harper said before Saturday’s game that he didn’t think his problems last month with fastballs stemmed from his wrist injury.
“Sometimes it just happens. Sometimes they just get it by you,” Harper said. “You have to figure it out and come back and try to be better.”
The Nationals attacked Harper with fastballs on Saturday, but it was a slider in the eighth that Harper reached over the plate to give the Phillies an important insurance run. His single to center field put the Phillies ahead by three.
Suárez was now out of the game and the bullpen was beginning to show wear when the Nationals scored in the eighth. Harper -- just like Suárez did in the third -- kept the game together. It was enough security for Connor Brogdon to record the final three outs for his first major-league save. Their starting pitcher burnt out before the end of the third inning, but the Phillies found a way.