Spencer Howard went nine days between starts before making his major-league debut. He left his second start in only the fourth inning because of a clear fluid blister underneath his right middle finger.
So perhaps the third start will be the charm to bring some semblance of normalcy for the Phillies’ top pitching prospect. Never mind that it will take place at a triple-A ballpark in Buffalo, N.Y.
The Phillies will play two games in one day Thursday at Sahlen Field, 2020 home of the displaced Toronto Blue Jays, before picking up and heading to Atlanta for a three-game series. Howard will start the opener followed by Vince Velasquez in the second game, both of which will be seven innings.
In his debut, Aug. 9 against the Atlanta Braves, Howard gave up four runs in 4⅔ innings. He had the usual first-start jitters – and maybe some rust from the layoff – and it manifested in many of his pitches being up in the strike zone, according to Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, who slammed one of two home runs against him.
Phillies manager Joe Girardi said he was eager to see Howard pitch again on a normal five-day routine. But the 24-year-old right-hander gave up two more homers and four runs (three earned) in 3⅓ innings last Friday night against the New York Mets before succumbing to the blister.
"I think for a young man it's just commanding the strike zone better with your offspeed pitches," Girardi said. "That's what he needs to do, and it's what a lot of pitchers need to do to be effective."
Especially against a Blue Jays lineup filled with young hitters – Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, and Cavan Biggio, to name a few -- who like to mash fastballs.
Howard’s heater has averaged 94.1 mph and generated only four swings-and-misses thus far. Like many power pitchers, he might still be building arm strength after a short training camp.
But in the absence of his best fastball, Howard also can get outs with a good slider, an emerging curveball, and a nasty changeup. The latter, in particular, might be critical to slowing down the Blue Jays’ bats.
“Probably some of it stems from not locating offspeed as well, so they’re able to kind of gear more towards the fastball,” Howard said last Friday night. “I’m just trying to get back to where I can have good locations with all my pitches.”
The Phillies' confidence in Howard hasn't been shaken. Not even a little bit. Just ask right fielder Bryce Harper, who lobbied in training camp for Howard to join the rotation early in the season.
“He’s got big-league stuff. Everybody knows that,” Harper said. “It’s just trying to hone it in, calm it down a little bit. He’s going to be just fine for us. We’re very excited about what we’ve seen. He just has to get comfortable and have some fun. Enjoy his time. He’s a guy who’s going to be a dude for us.”
Rhys Hoskins’ home-run drought ended at 127 plate appearances Tuesday night when he belted an opposite-field solo shot in the fifth inning of a 13-6 victory over the Boston Red Sox. It marked the first baseman’s first homer since Sept. 17, 2019, in Atlanta.
The ball, which landed in the right-field bleachers at Fenway Park, was retrieved by reliever Tommy Hunter, who gave it to Hoskins on Wednesday morning.
“He got it authenticated. It was pretty cool,” Hoskins said. “First homer at Fenway. He was like, ‘You’re probably going to hit a couple more here. But you’re not going to get the ball back, so keep this one.’ It’s pretty cool.”