Spencer Howard's velocity again a concern in Phillies loss


In his first start of the season, Spencer Howard looked like the same Spencer Howard we saw in 2020. 

Hard fastballs early, followed by command issues and a precipitous drop-off in velocity for the right-hander who’s spent the better part of three years as the Phillies’ top pitching prospect.

Howard lasted three innings in the Phillies’ 4-3 loss. He started in place of Chase Anderson, who is in the bullpen after giving up seven runs in 1⅓ innings in his most recent start against the Blue Jays.

Howard was on a pitch count of 70 to 75 and threw 68. His first two innings were impressive. In the first, he struck out two and seven of his nine fastballs were at least 96 mph. In the second, he hit a batter but struck out the side.

In the third inning, Howard’s fastball sat at 93 mph and was all the way down to 90-91 on occasion. He walked three batters in the frame, including the opposing pitcher, and allowed two runs. The inning would have played out differently had Bryce Harper come down with a diving catch in right field that was instead a Rafael Devers RBI double.

Howard was lifted after walking the leadoff batter in the fourth. His hardest fastball was 97.3 mph; his slowest was 90.4.

He attributed the loss in velocity to not giving himself enough time to get his heart rate down after running to first base on a groundout in his only at-bat. Pitchers did not hit last season so this was the first at-bat of Howard’s major-league career.

“I think I kinda didn’t give myself enough time to regroup after running to first,” Howard said. "I could speak in should-haves and would-haves all night, but I think that had something to do with it.”

In 2021, few pitchers can get away with a low-90s fastball unless they have wipe-out secondary stuff and/or strong command. The problem with Howard early in his major-league career has been that when the velocity goes, so too does the command. He had trouble Saturday keeping the ball below the belt.

In 10 games and seven starts with the Phillies over two seasons, Howard has a 6.25 ERA and 1.67 WHIP.

“He kinda has a history of this and we’ll continue to work on it,” manager Joe Girardi said of the velocity dip. “We’ve seen it before, and it didn’t happen in his last start. I don’t know if it was him busting his tail down the first base line, that took a little bit out of him. I’m not sure, but it’s something we’ve talked about in the past.”

It remains to be seen what the Phillies will do with this rotation spot the next time around. Prior to the game, manager Joe Girardi said that every start is an opportunity to hold onto the job. Howard did not do a ton to hold onto the job Saturday night but may keep it by default because his development is important, Matt Moore is on the IL with a back injury and Anderson offers little upside or length.

The Phillies had another lackluster offensive performance. They scored in the fourth inning when Brad Miller tripled off starter Nate Eovaldi and came around on Odubel Herrera’s sacrifice fly. Rhys Hoskins added a solo homer in the sixth, his first in 97 plate appearances and the 100th of his career. The other run scored when Hoskins was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the seventh. They were left loaded when Miller struck out to end the inning.

Boston's back-to-back homers in the sixth off Sam Coonrod by Xander Bogaerts and Danny Santana loomed large.

The Phillies have scored seven runs in their last four games. They’ve lost four in a row and are a season-worst two games under .500 at 22-24. They've struck out at least 10 times in eight of their last nine games.

Harper went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts and one of them came with the bases loaded during that seventh inning. He hit into a fielder's choice with the winning run on base in the ninth. Harper is 2 for 25 with 13 strikeouts and one walk over his last seven games.

After the game, Girardi sounded like he was leaning toward giving Harper the day off in Sunday’s 1:05 p.m. series finale.

Zack Wheeler (3-2, 2.52) opposes Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez (5-2, 4.70), the best of Boston's three starting pitchers this weekend. The Phillies have won each of Wheeler’s last three starts as he’s allowed two earned runs in 22 innings with 25 strikeouts and one walk.

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