DENVER - It's nearly Memorial Day weekend, meaning most major league teams are beginning to take stock of themselves more than a quarter of the way through the season.
The Phillies' brass has been honest with its own club since around Halloween, though. It's a rebuilding team that has been eager to sell off veteran parts.
With the trade deadline a little more than two months away, the front office's efforts to move the remaining parts will reach a fever pitch soon. The Phillies will be baseball's most aggressive seller, and contending teams could do a lot worse than adding a Cole Hamels, Aaron Harang or Jonathan Papelbon to their pitching stable in hopes of a postseason run.
And then there's the case of Ryan Howard, the once-immovable big piece.
The combination of a massive contract and declining skills made it impossible for the Phillies to find a taker over the winter, despite their best efforts. Six-plus weeks into the 2015 season, Howard's stock could be on the rise.
Howard went 3-for-5 with a home run, continuing a month-long run of strong production, in helping the Phillies claim their seventh win in the last eight games, 4-2 over the Colorado Rockies.
Thanks to Howard and Co., the Phillies have scored four or more runs in seven straight games for the first time since Aug. 17-26 in 2011.
"It's been a full team effort," Howard said of the team's hot stretch. "Pitchers have been throwing well, we've been getting some timely hitting, guys have been coming up in different situations and getting hits and scoring runs for us, so it's all kind of coming together."
Along with Chase Utley, back in the third spot in the lineup for the first time in six games and 7-for-16 in his last five games, Howard helped fuel the Phillies' offense with a two-out single in the first inning. He hit his eighth home run of the season in the third inning.
Howard finished a triple shy of hitting for the cycle and raised his OPS to .815. In the last month (since April 21), Howard is hitting .292 (28-for-96) with eight home runs, five doubles, a triple and 18 RBI in 27 games.
"I'm not putting a whole lot of thought into it, I'm just playing," Howard said. "Just trying to keep it simple and play, that's it."
But he has to be encouraged with the results, right?
"The first month ... it's one of those things where you continue to try to take good swings and try to have a good approach, and early on, you're not getting the results [despite] hitting balls, putting them in play, hitting them hard. And now it's been about finding that real estate out there," Howard said. "I mean, it's not doing a whole lot different than the first month, it's just finding real estate out there."
Howard, 35, is still owed $35 million after this season. But if the Phillies help bridge the gap in salary, which the front office has said it would consider in any trade, the first baseman's bat once again looks as if it could help a team in need of a power upgrade.
Since April 21, only five players have hit more home runs than Howard's eight: Bryce Harper (11), Giancarlo Stanton (10), Ryan Braun (10), Mike Trout (nine) and Todd Frazier (nine).
According to ESPN Stats, Howard's 454-foot home run last night was his longest home run since August 2011.
"He's just having good swings," manager Ryne Sandberg said. "He crushed that [home-run] ball out there to left-center. There was no help at all — if anything, it was fighting against the rain. It just looks like he's real comfortable at home plate, getting really good contact on his pitches."
Howard helped give Severino Gonzalez a cushion before he took the mound for his third career major league start. Gonzalez, 22, summoned back to the big leagues to take injured Chad Billingsley's place in the rotation, had a 2-0 lead before crossing the white lines for the first time at the offense-friendly ballpark in Denver's LoDo section.
Gonzalez didn't look a bit intimidated by Coors Field. He retired nine straight batters before Charlie Blackmon led off the fourth inning with a single.
The Rockies made better contact off Gonzalez in the rookie righthander's second time through the lineup, but strong defense from around the diamond — particularly from Freddy Galvis, Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco — kept his strong start intact.
Gonzalez held the Rockies to one run on five hits in five innings. Sandberg gave him the hook after 65 pitches.
"They started to get some wood on the ball, the start of the third time through the lineup," Sandberg said. "He did a nice job ... really handled the conditions out there well. He set a good tone."
After coming unglued a night before, the bullpen was up to the task. Jake Diekman, Luis Garcia, Ken Giles and Jonathan Papelbon made Gonzalez's start stand up.
Buoyed by Howard's bat, Gonzalez collected his second big-league win. Gonzalez has allowed three earned runs in his last two starts — both wins — after surrendering seven in his debut in St. Louis last month.