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Phillies fall to Nationals, 4-3, in 10 innings

Cody Asche leaves the field after the Phillies' 4-3 loss. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Cody Asche leaves the field after the Phillies' 4-3 loss. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

THE EXPRESSIONS of discontent crescendoed throughout the afternoon. After the first strikeout, the sound was little more than a murmur. After the fourth, it was a full-blown chorus of boos.

If you are a human being, you entered the season hoping it would play out differently than this. A hot start. That's what Ryan Howard needed. You didn't have to hope that he would return to his halcyon days of MVP numbers and tape-measure shots. Just a couple of weeks of good at-bats to help release some of the pressure that has surrounded him through the offseason.

Six games into the 2015 season, that hot start has yet to materialize. By the time Ryne Sandberg double-switched Howard out of yesterday's 4-3 loss to the Nationals, Howard had struck out swinging four times, two of them with an opportunity to drive in a tying run. On the season, the veteran first baseman is 3-for-20 with seven strikeouts, no walks and no home runs.

This was not a good day. The guy who ended up replacing Howard at first base homered in his first at-bat to tie the game at 2-2. (Darin Ruf took lefty Xavier Cedeno deep in the seventh inning.) Howard then watched from the bench as his spot in the order arrived in the 10th with nobody out and two men on base, the second of them representing the tying run. (Grady Sizemore struck out, and the Phillies ended up pushing home just one of the runners.)

Howard isn't the first batter to struggle against righthander Max Scherzer, who earned a 7-year, $210 million contract this offseason because of his ability to make batters look silly. But that context does little to improve the comfort of Howard's current situation, playing for a team that is willing to pay for him to play elsewhere.

"Howie's just looking for some consistency," Sandberg said. "He was a little bit behind the fastball off of Scherzer. He just didn't connect today, but he continues to work at things. One swing of the bat somewhere in there could have made a difference."

One of those swings could have made a difference in the game as well. Instead, the Phillies fell to 3-3 after Justin De Fratus allowed a couple of runs in the top of the 10th inning.

Howard had a chance to tie the game in the third inning after Freddy Galvis and Cody Asche laced back-to-back, two-out singles to rightfield, but Scherzer needed just three pitches to strike him out: curveball called, fastball foul, changeup swinging. In the fifth, he had runners at second and third after a two-out RBI single by Asche cut the Nationals' lead to 2-1. Howard took a first-pitch ball, then swung and missed at three straight pitches - a changeup and two fastballs. In the first inning, he struck out on four pitches, all of them fastballs, the last two of which the first baseman swung through. His fourth and final strikeout came against Cedeno in the seventh, after which Sandberg double-switched him out of the game, leaving Ruf at first.

After the loss, the manager remained positive about Howard, who is coming off a year in which he was one of the least productive hitters in the majors. Hopefully it is just a one-game thing, Sandberg said. On Saturday, Howard had a pair of doubles in the Phillies' 3-2 win over the Nationals.

"He's going to continue working on it," Sandberg said. "I know that."

Few other Phillies had much success against Scherzer, who had eight strikeouts in six innings while holding them to one run on six singles and two walks. They had an opportunity to push a run home in the second inning after Odubel Herrera hit a one-out single, stole second and advanced to third after an errant throw, but Cesar Hernandez struck out and Cameron Rupp flied out to centerfield.

Afterward, though, Howard knew he was the focal point. Walking past a pack of reporters on the way to the Phillies' bus, he offered a brief statement.

"All I can say is tough game," Howard said. "That's all I got today."