The list of disturbing things during the Phillies’ 12-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies Sunday at Coors Field was long.
Poor pitching from the back end of the starting rotation resurfaced again. Chase Anderson cruised into the bottom of the fourth inning with a 2-0 lead and exited with two outs after throwing 34 pitches and surrendering that lead.
Five pitches after his departure, the game got out of hand when reliever David Hale hung a breaking ball in the middle of the plate that Trevor Story planted on the concourse in left field for a grand slam.
There was a second-inning error by Didi Gregorius that did not lead to any runs, but it was his second error of the series and fifth of the season and he was frustrated enough that he removed his glove and considered slamming it on the infield dirt.
It was also another hitless day for leadoff hitter Andrew McCutchen, whose batting average fell to .154. The veteran left fielder and former National League MVP also misplayed a ball in left field that led to two gift runs for the Rockies in the fifth inning.
But perhaps the most bothersome thing of all was that the Phillies wasted two of the innings that they have reserved for rookie Spencer Howard’s right arm this season.
Howard entered the game in the bottom of the fifth with the Phillies already behind, 7-2. Team president Dave Dombrowski said before the start of the season that the Phillies want to limit the number of innings Howard pitches this season. Since that’s the case and because Howard has one of the liveliest arms on the ballclub, it would seem to make more sense to use him only in high-leverage situations.
“I would have used him in a close game,” manager Joe Girardi said. “If it was 3-2 I would have probably used him today. The game just got away from us. I’m not going to use [Connor] Brogdon in that situation and I’m not going to use [Brandon] Kintzler or [Sam] Coonrod, so I felt like to get through the game I had a couple of guys who could give me multiple innings and that’s what I did.”
The Phillies fell to 0-4 in games started by Anderson, whose ERA went from 4.15 to 6.48. They are 2-6 in games started by Anderson, Matt Moore, and Vince Velasquez and that trio has a combined 7.39 ERA in the eight starts. Worse still is that none of the above pitchers has made it to the sixth inning and only twice have they made it into the fifth.
One potential solution to that obvious early-season problem is using Howard in a starting role again. That way, he is assured to pitch important innings and the Phillies can still limit the number. Howard’s highest innings total in a season came in 2018 when he threw 112 at Lakewood. So far this season he has thrown 4⅓ innings.
The Phillies have declined to reveal the number of innings they’d like Howard to throw, but if he made 27 starts and averaged three innings per start, he would throw 81 more innings this season. A total of 85 innings for the season seems reasonable and, yes, it would sort of bring the Phillies into the “opener” era that former manager Gabe Kapler flirted with a few times during his two seasons here. Push Howard’s total to four innings per start and the rookie would throw 112 innings for the season, which, as we just pointed out, he has done before.
“That’s not something we’ve talked about,” Girardi said. “I also think it’s important that if he is throwing well that he throws important innings and he also gets built up. He gets a chance to work on his stuff. It’s hard sometimes to improve your stuff if you’re not getting multiple innings. There’s a lot to think about there and we talk about it all the time. What’s best for us as a team here and what’s best for him. I guess you could use an opener for two or three innings, but it’s just different. Everyone has to be on board and there’s a lot to adjust to.”
Dombrowski did leave some wiggle room before the season when he talked about how the Phillies would use Howard.
“One of the problems you run into is, if you make him a starting pitcher this year right from the get-go, those innings get burned very quickly,” the team president said. “So it’s not that we don’t like him as a starter. But right now we plan on using him as a bullpen guy. A three-inning type guy. Maybe an inning here. However, when I say that, it would not be ever be like he would crank it up real fast, 12 pitches, you’re ready to go into a game like a reliever normally would be.”
But Dombrowski also said this: “Well, I mean, he may start some games and pitch two or three innings. There may be places he comes in in the middle [of the game], so he can have the ability of sitting on the bench for a while, then loosening up. But, again, it wouldn’t be rushed. No. We’re going to give him enough time. And there might be a time where we say, ‘OK, you’re going to pitch an inning.’ But we have all of those things kind of factored in.”
It all sounded like a well-thought out plan, but Sunday the Phillies used Howard for two innings in a game that was already out of hand.
“I thought he threw OK today,” Girardi said. “The hard thing with Spence is I’m not really comfortable bringing him in in the middle of an inning yet just because he hasn’t worked that role. I think you have to be somewhat cognizant that he’s not used to throwing two days in a row and he’s not used to throwing every other day. But I actually think he’s throwing the ball OK.”
If Howard can give the Phillies three or four good innings at the start of a game, it would certainly be an improvement over the three or four innings the team has received from the back of the rotation so far this season.