This is what the Phillies envisioned all along from Spencer Howard. It’s why they were saving his bullets back in spring training, back before the world and the baseball season was changed by COVID-19.
Back in those warm and hopeful days in Clearwater, Phillies officials were plotting ways to keep Howard’s workload in check so the 24-year-old right-hander could be a difference-maker in August and September.
Howard was a difference-maker on the final day of August as he picked up his first big-league win in an 8-6 victory over the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park on Monday night.
Now, he’ll continue to get a regular turn in the Phillies’ rotation and the test of his young baseball career in September.
“It’s exciting,” Howard said. “I like pitching in games that feel like they matter more, games late in the season and playoffs and all that stuff. It’s fun and I’m excited to get there and see what the atmosphere is like.”
Thirty games into the 60-game sprint, the Phillies are 15-15. They have won six of their last seven games. If the postseason were to start on Tuesday – September 1 – they’d be in for the first time since 2011.
If the Phils can continue to win and get to the postseason, they might be OK in a short series with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler at the top of the rotation.
But they will need contributions from the rest of the rotation if they’re going to get there.
Zach Eflin has to keep doing what he’s doing.
Jake Arrieta needs to turn things around. That’s a must.
And Howard needs to do more than survive his big-league baptism by fire. He needs to thrive and give the Phils more outings like he did Monday night in his fourth big-league start.
“We’re going to ask him to pitch some big games and we have nothing but confidence in him to pitch them,” Rhys Hoskins said.
Howard’s first four outs Monday night came on strikeouts. And though he lasted only five innings because his pitch count swelled to 91, he gave up just five hits and two runs, both coming on Juan Soto’s 10th home run. Nothing to be ashamed of there. Soto hits ’em against everyone.
Howard had not pitched in 11 days because of a postponement. He used that time to work in the bullpen and rededicate himself to using four pitches. The fastball-changeup combo is his comfort zone. He threw 47 fastballs – it topped out at 96.5 mph – and 18 changeups. He mixed in 19 sliders and seven curveballs to keep the Nats off balance.
The Phillies made four additions to the bullpen over the last 10 days and none to the starting rotation.
That was an expression of faith in Howard.
Does Joe Girardi think he’s ready to win big games down the stretch?
“I feel better about it now just because of what I saw tonight,” the manager said. “He used his whole repertoire. I hope today is a big step for him, that he realizes he can compete at this level and use all his pitches and have success.”
Howard received plenty of run support from the sizzling Hoskins, Jean Segura and Jay Bruce.
Hoskins clubbed a solo homer in the first inning and a two-run double in the seventh. He has homered in three straight games and four of the last five. He has eight RBIs in his last three games.
Segura had a three-run double in the fourth, giving him eight RBIs in his last six games.
Bruce came off the IL with a second-inning homer.
JoJo Romero and Tommy Hunter shined out of the bullpen to help make Howard’s win stand up.
After the game, Howard retreated to the clubhouse, reached for his phone and was greeted by a slew of congratulatory text messages. Then his teammates threw him a little party in honor of his first win.
“A nice, little beer shower and some baby powder,” Howard said with a smile. “It was OK.”