Spencer Howard’s 30th pitch on Saturday night was a devastating change-up that cut through the strike zone and made the batter’s swing look feeble. It was 14 mph slower than the fastball he uncorked two pitches earlier, leaving little for Franchy Cordero to do but swing through it for the final out of the inning.
It was easy then -- in the second inning of a 4-3 loss to the Red Sox -- to dream about Howard, the team’s top pitching prospect who was making his first start of the season. He struck out five of the first seven batters he faced, touched 97 mph, and looked like the pitcher the Phillies watched climb through the minor leagues. He was electric.
And then the third inning started. Howard’s velocity dipped and his command became erratic. He walked the opposing pitcher and nearly hit the next batter before walking him. His fastball velocity averaged 96.2 mph in the first and 94.7 mph in the second before sitting at 93 mph in the third.
Howard said his velocity dip stemmed from him running to first base on a grounder to the pitcher to end the second inning.
“When I went back out for the third inning, I don’t think I gave myself enough time in the dugout before to regroup and get my heart rate back down,” Howard said. “I was kind of exerting more effort than I should have been on the mound.
“I can speak in should’ves and would’ves all night, but I think that had something to do with it.”
He allowed two runs in the third and finished the inning but his night ended when he walked the leadoff hitter in the fourth. Joe Girardi said before the game that the Phillies would be comfortable with Howard throwing 70 to 75 pitches, but he seemed to hit a wall after throwing just 30.
“It’s tough,” Howard said. “I could go through ‘I could’ve done this’ and ‘I should’ve done that’ but at the end of the day, I think having success in the first couple innings is going to be enough for me to work on and just try to stay positive where I can and to keep trending in the right direction and put the work in and good things will happen.”
The Phillies dropped the first two games of the series and have lost six of their last seven. After Sunday’s series finale, the Phillies play four at the Marlins and then two in Tampa against the Rays. They’ve scored just seven runs in their last four games and a tough week is waiting.
The Phillies started Howard this season as a reliever as they try to monitor his workload after two injury-shortened seasons. They changed their plans when their fourth and fifth starters faltered and sent Howard to the minors to transition back to a starting role.
“I’m doing it. I don’t know. That’s a tough question,” Howard said when asked of the team’s plan for him this year. “I think there’s a lot of people who are a lot smarter than me who are putting the plans into place and I’m just trying to be on my routine. If I do that, I’ll be all right.”
He returned Saturday night after three triple-A starts as the Phillies saw enough to deem him ready for the majors. Howard looked the part for two innings.
The dip in velocity was reminiscent of Howard’s starts last summer as his fastball speed decreased after a few innings. Howard was eventually shut down with a sore shoulder, but Girardi said he believes Saturday’s velocity dip was not health related.
“He kind of has a history of this and we’ll continue to work on it,” Girardi said.
The Phillies loaded the bases with one out in the seventh, but scored just one run. Bryce Harper struck out looking, Rhys Hoskins was hit by a pitch, and Brad Miller struck out swinging. The Phillies struck out 13 times and lead the National League in strikeouts.
“It’s hard to score runs a lot of times when you strike out a lot especially with runners on,” Girardi said. “We will continue to talk about approaches and get better at it.”
Harper went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. He has just two hits in his last 25 at-bats with 13 strikeouts. The Phillies are already without J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, making it hard for the lineup to overcome a struggling Harper.
Hoskins homered in the sixth, making him the third fastest Phillies player to reach 100 career homers. Ryan Howard reached the milestone in 325 games, Chuck Klein needed 390 games, and Hoskins did it in 450 games. It was Hoskins’ first homer since April 26, but he’s starting to look better at the plate. He has a .477 on-base percentage in 44 plate appearances over his last 10 games.
The Phillies spent $7 million to sign Chase Anderson and Matt Moore to finish their rotation. But the two veterans combined for a 7.68 ERA in 11 starts. Anderson was moved to the bullpen for Howard and Moore lost his rotation job to Vince Velasquez before being placed on the injured list on Saturday.
Dave Dombrowski said before Friday’s game that it will be hard to have Howard pitch every fifth day for the rest of the season. The team is watching his pitch count each start and will likely shut him down sometime this season.
“I think any pitcher would like to go more than that, but I do understand the thought process behind it,” Howard said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who are a lot smarter than people who have thought about it a lot more than I have.”
Moore and Anderson did not provide the innings the Phillies needed at the back of their rotation, which forced them to change course. Velasquez, despite missing his last start with a numb finger, has held his own as perhaps the team’s biggest surprise. The Phillies hoped Howard would be able to do the same. He did Saturday for 30 pitches. And then he seemed to fade away.
“Moving forward, there are some negatives but there are some positives,” Howard said. “I’m just going to keep working and go from there.”