ST. LOUIS - Following Wednesday night's 5-2 loss, the Phillies' offense had failed to score more than two runs for the 12th time in 22 games this season.
The top of the lineup, led by Odubel Herrera, hasn't been an issue. The bottom of the lineup, where Freddy Galvis had been hitting regularly before yesterday, wasn't a problem.
But the middle of the Phillies' lineup - their Nos. 3 through 5 hitters - had combined to hit .156 (38-for-243) with 14 extra-base hits entering yesterday's matinee at Busch Stadium. No team in baseball had fewer extra-base hits from their 3 through 5 hitters.
"We'll continue to try and figure it out and get guys slotted in there and hopefully we can catch fire," manager Ryne Sandberg said Wednesday night. "[Ryan Howard] has done a better job with contributing a number of games here in a row. We just need other guys to chip in and contribute."
Sandberg rewarded Howard and attempted to get his middle of the order going yesterday by placing the longtime cleanup hitter back in the fourth spot. Howard had been demoted from the spot two weeks earlier.
In his hiatus out of the cleanup spot, Howard hit .220, but had four home runs and an .817 OPS in 12 games. Entering yesterday, Howard had hit three home runs in his last five games, including in the Phillies' loss Wednesday night.
"I'm just trying to do the best I can wherever I am," Howard said after that game on whether he thought it was time to move back to the cleanup spot. "I feel I'm a four-hole guy. I've been there most of my career. But, again, that's [Sandberg's] call."
Sandberg made the call a few short hours before the Phillies' afternoon getaway game, which also marked Howard's 1,298th game at first base for the Phillies, tying Fred Luderus (1910-1920) for the most career games at first in franchise history.
Just as initially removing Howard from the fourth spot wasn't surprising, putting him back into the cleanup role wasn't shocking, either.
In an effort to balance a lefthanded-heavy lineup, righthanded-hitting Jeff Francoeur had been slotted into the fourth spot for seven straight games. Francoeur was 0-for-13 with three strikeouts in his last four games and came into play yesterday hitting .180 with a .570 OPS in 20 games; both of those numbers are inferior to Howard's (.191, .658 in 19 games).
It's probably not shocking, then, that, Phillies cleanup hitters were last in baseball in hitting (.136), OBP (.205) and OPS (.402) entering the day.
Both Howard (with seven) and Francoeur (five) did have more extra-base hits than longtime three-hole hitter Chase Utley (two), who was given the afternoon off.
Through his first 21 games, Utley was hitting .114 (184th out of 184 qualifying big-league players) with a .398 OPS (183rd). His only two extra-base hits came on the same day: He hit two home runs 17 days ago at Citi Field.
Utley, has, however, been a little unlucky. He is hitting .102 on balls he's hit into play (BABIP), while the major league average on BABIP is .293. In three at-bats in St. Louis, Utley ended up jogging back to the dugout without a hit after hitting a trio of booming outs to the warning track in left-centerfield at Busch Stadium.
Chad Billingsley's next start could come in a Phillies uniform.
Billingsley made his fourth rehab start at Triple A Lehigh Valley. The 30-year-old righthander allowed two unearned runs on five hits in 5 2/3 innings; he struck out six and walked one.
Billingsley, who has been limited to two big-league starts in the last two seasons after undergoing two separate elbow surgeries, threw 99 pitches. He retired the final 10 batters he faced.
"My arm feels normal, I'm really happy with it," Billingsley said. "It's been a journey."
Billingsley could join the Phillies' rotation as soon as next week in Atlanta, but it's more likely to come when they return home from their road trip.
Severino Gonzalez, currently slotted in the fifth spot in the rotation, is tentatively scheduled to make his second career start in Miami on Sunday. After that, Gonzalez's third turn would come on Saturday, May 9, when Billingsley could slide into his place in the rotation.
Odubel Herrera singled in the Phillies' first run in the second inning and has reached base in 15 straight games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no other Phillies rookie since 1900 has had an on-base streak of 15 or more games . . . On Wednesday night, St. Louis native Ryan Howard hit his 20th career home run against the Cardinals. Before going 1-for-4 yesterday, Howard had one home run in every 10.9 at-bats (218 total at-bats) against the Cardinals, the highest home run rate for any hitter in major league history against the Cardinals (minimum 150 at-bats). The two next closest hitters: Ellis Burks (11.61 home-run rate) and Ken Griffey Jr. (11.64) . . . Want to take batting practice at Citizens Bank Park? The 18th annual Richie Ashburn Home Runs for Heart takes place Monday and Tuesday. For more information: heart.org/homeruns.