Maybe it would have been too perfect for the Phillies and their excited fans. A flu-stricken Ryan Howard hit a pinch-hit three-run homer, which woke the disgruntled Citizens Bank Park crowd tonight and seemed as if it would lift the Phils out of a losing streak.
But the unpleasant reality of this ugly week was renewed when Ryan Madson, substituting at closer for Brad Lidge, surrendered two home runs in the ninth inning, erasing the exciting memory of Howard's seventh-inning homer and resulting in a 6-5 loss to Baltimore. It was the Phillies' fifth consecutive defeat.
Madson gave up a solo home run to Baltimore's Gregg Zaun with one out in the ninth. Pinch-hitter Oscar Salazar singled with two outs. A slumping Brian Roberts then hit a two-run homer with two outs to provide the winning margin.
The Phillies are 1-7 on this homestand, which concludes today against the Orioles.
Battling a 104-degree fever, Howard checked into the hospital early yesterday morning and did not leave until the afternoon. His consecutive-games-played streak of 343 games (after tonight) was in jeopardy.
Howard joked with reporters and teammates before the game, but declined to answer questions about why he was not in the lineup.
Greg Dobbs started at first, and Matt Stairs batted in Howard's customary fourth spot in the lineup. Paul Bako also made his first start of the season, catching and batting eighth.
"[Howard] was pretty sick," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said before the game.
Howard's streak is the longest active stretch in the major leagues. He has played every game since May 25, 2007.
Manuel said the consecutive-games-played streak was a function of Howard's distaste for rest.
"He doesn't like taking days off," Manuel said before the game. "Actually, this year I don't think I've ever walked up and asked him, 'How do you feel?' or 'Do you feel like you might need a blow?' I haven't done that to him, because almost every time I gave him a day off, he actually came to me and said, 'I can play.' I remember resting him against Randy Johnson. He told me, 'Charlie, I want to play against him. That's a challenge, for me to face Randy Johnson.' "
For six innings, the offense missed Howard, mustering just two hits off rookie starter Brad Bergesen. He flustered a makeshift Phillies lineup, retiring 10 consecutive batters between Dobbs' second-inning single and Bako's single to lead off the sixth.
Shane Victorino led off the seventh with a double and scored when Chase Utley followed by doing the same. Utley moved to third on Stairs' single. After Jayson Werth popped up, Dobbs singled in the Phils' second run.
Pedro Feliz flied to center, bringing up Bako's spot in the order. But a visceral roar rose in the ballpark as Howard ambled up the dugout steps, took several practice swings, and stepped to the plate. He sent a 1-1 fastball from reliever Danys Baez over the center-field wall, drawing a long and loud ovation that ended in a curtain call.
The comeback, though it did not last, was made possible by a characteristic performance from starter J.A. Happ. Far from dominant but consistently resilient, Happ allowed 10 hits in six innings, managing many times to halt Baltimore rallies. He ended up surrendering just two runs.
The first inning was characteristic of his night. Roberts hit a leadoff single and was erased on a double play, but the next three batters reached, on two walks and a single. After falling behind 2-0 to Luke Scott and risking another early deficit for the Phils, Happ struck out Scott to leave the bases loaded.
The Phils' strong defense reemerged after a rough week to save Happ in the second. Zaun led off with a single and moved to third on a base hit by the next batter, Robert Andino. Bergesen then popped up a bunt attempt behind home plate toward the third-base side.
Bako, making his first start of the season on his 37th birthday, dove and snagged the ball for the first out. Roberts then flied to right, and Werth's strong throw kept Zaun at third. When Happ finally allowed a run, it was not a jam but an infield single followed by an Aubrey Huff RBI double with one out in the fifth that put Baltimore up, 1-0. Huff went to third on a Ty Wigginton single.
Happ continued to pitch effectively with men on, retiring the next two batters. But he allowed a leadoff double the next inning to Andino, who later scored on a sacrifice fly.
Though he held the Orioles scoreless in the early part of the game, Happ allowed the leadoff batter to reach in four of six innings, lifting his pitch count to 109 by the end of the sixth. Chad Durbin walked in a run in the seventh to make it 3-0 Baltimore.