Phillies vs. Nationals: Question about Spencer Howard linger in Phils' win

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Phils win, but serious questions linger about pitching prospect Howard originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Maybe the Phillies have this all wrong. Maybe Ranger Suarez should be the guy starting games and Spencer Howard should be coming out of the bullpen.

Or maybe Howard should be in the minor leagues, learning how to get to the middle innings, never mind through them, which should be a minimal requirement for anyone holding down a spot in a big-league starting rotation.

Howard hit a wall again Saturday afternoon and failed to get out of the third inning. The Phillies capitalized on an error and scored four unearned runs in the fourth inning — three came on Andrew McCutchen's 10th homer of the season — and went on to beat the Washington Nationals, 5-2, in front of just 16,118 at Citizens Bank Park. 

Suarez, huge with three innings of scoreless relief, earned the win. He faced 12 batters and only three of them reached base on a pair of errors — yeah, the sloppy Phillies scored a hat trick — and a hit batsman. Suarez' scoreless innings streak is now at 12⅓. For the season, he's allowed just one unearned run in 17⅓ innings.

Suarez, a confident, 25-year-old lefty from Venezuela, was developed as a starting pitcher in the Phillies' minor-league system and made three starts for the club in 2018.

Maybe it's time he got another one.

Or two. 

Or three.

For the second time in three starts this season, Howard's fastball velocity dipped considerably as the game hit the third inning. He showed a 97 mph fastball in the first inning and racked up a bunch of 93s in the third inning. His final fastball of the day was just 91 mph.

Howard has been the Phillies' top starting pitching prospect for several years. He doesn't turn 25 until the end of July and he's far from a finished product. His future remains potentially bright, but is that future as a starter or a reliever? And is his future being best served by being in the majors, struggling to get through three innings, at this point?

"I think he's developing," manager Joe Girardi said after the win, which left the Phillies at 27-30. "When you pitch in games like this, I think you're always going to learn stuff. He just struggled today."

Girardi said Howard was healthy. There's no way a prospect as valuable as him would be on the mound if he wasn't. It remains a mystery why Howard is not holding his velocity. The team has evaluated his diet and the pitcher recently disclosed that he's begun eating a banana with peanut butter shortly before starts to build some quick energy. (Try it with a glass of cold milk. Not bad.)

Even Howard is stumped by the struggles he's encountering as the game reaches the third inning.

"I can't point to one specific reason but it does seem like there's a wall that I've got to push through," he said. "I don't know if it's physical, mental, mechanical or whatnot. I'm racking my brain, too. I can't put my finger on it, but I'll for sure be working on it."

A quickly fading fastball wasn't Howard's only issue Saturday. His command was poor. He faced 11 batters. He walked two of them and hit another. He threw 48 pitches — 26 strikes and 22 balls, not a good ratio.

"I struggled to command my off-speed stuff, and really the fastball, for that matter, too. It's a tough game when you can't control your pitches," he said.

In three starts, Howard has walked nine batters in just 9⅓ innings.

Howard also struggled as a starter last season. He allowed 30 hits and 10 walks in 24⅓ innings and pitched to a 5.92 ERA. He did miss time with shoulder stiffness/soreness.

Suarez has been the first guy out of the bullpen in all three of Howard's starts this season and delivered two, three and three scoreless innings, respectively. With his first-inning power, maybe Howard is better suited to be a reliever. Or maybe he needs to go back to Triple A and learn to get to the middle innings.

It doesn't appear as if that is the plan for now, however.

"Every game that he's started, he's kept us in the game," Girardi said. "I know I've gone to Ranger, but we do have an innings limit on Spencer. It's not like I'm going to let him go seven or eight innings. That's not going to happen. It's worked out well combining these two and we'll probably continue to do it."

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