The Phillies were left facing two pivotal questions after dropping their fourth straight game in Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Red Sox at Citizens Bank Park -- and the answers could prove vital to the club's long-term success.
What happened to Spencer Howard after his night began with two impeccable innings? And does Bryce Harper need a day -- or potentially more -- off?
Let's break down each of those situations below.
The initial two innings of Howard's first big league start in 2021 went exactly as planned.
The Phillies' 24-year-old top prospect was sharp, efficient and used all of his pitches to stifle one of the best offenses in baseball. Unfortunately for the Phils, Howard's night was cut short after he abruptly lost that command and saw a significant velocity dip.
Howard racked up five strikeouts through two innings, with his fastball averaging 95.3 mph -- and topping out at 97.3 mph. But after sprinting down the line on a groundout to end the bottom of the second, Howard was an entirely different pitcher when he took the mound in the top of the third.
The right-hander issued an eight-pitch walk to opposing starter Nathan Eovaldi and followed with another free pass to Enrique Hernández. Howard issued a four-pitch walk to J.D. Martinez two batters later. The inning also included a wild pitch and a number of pitches missing the zone by a significant margin. His fastball averaged 92.9 mph after the second inning and maxed out at 94.5 mph.
"We've seen it before and it's something that we've talked about," manager Joe Girardi said of Howard's velocity drop. "I don't know if him busting his tail down the first-base line took a little bit out of him, I'm not sure. But it's something we've talked about in the past."
Though Howard has battled shoulder issues each of the past two seasons, Girardi isn't concerned about anything ailing the young pitcher at this point.
"I don't think physically, because I don't think he'd be able to throw that velocity [early in the game] if there was something physically wrong," Girardi said. "He kind of has a history of this. We'll continue to work on it."
Howard admitted he didn't allow himself enough time to regroup between innings after running to first to end the second. That said, his fastest pitch of the night came on a 97.3 mph fastball to Danny Santana in the top of the second inning. Howard's next fastball came in at just 93.1 mph, and his final five fastballs in the top of the second averaged just 93.4 mph.
After stretching out as a starter in Spring Training, Howard moved to the bullpen to begin the regular season before being sent to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he made three starts to build back up for a starting role.
"It was more of an adjustment than I anticipated," Howard said. "But I'm happy to be back in a starting role now and continuing to build up."
Girardi did not commit to Howard making another start immediately after the game. Even if the righty does get another crack to lock down the No. 5 spot in the rotation, the Phillies have already acknowledged they'll closely monitor his workload and pitch counts throughout the season.
"That's a tough question," Howard said when asked how he feels about the restrictions. "I think there's a lot of people a lot smarter than me that are putting the plans into place, so I'm just trying to stay on my routine, and if I do that, it'll be all right."
Asked specifically about potentially being limited to 75 pitches -- or something similar -- each time out, Howard expressed that starting pitchers always want to contribute more.
“I mean, I think any pitcher would like to go more than that,” Howard said. “But I do understand the thought process behind it.”
It's been one week since Harper was removed from the Phillies' May 15 game against the Blue Jays due to right shoulder soreness. Though he hasn't missed a full game in that span, he's just 2-for-25 (.080) with 13 strikeouts since the start of that contest.
Harper was not in the starting lineup the day after being lifted early, but he entered after Scott Kingery sustained a concussion and the Phillies had no other bench options. He popped out on a bunt attempt in his first plate appearance, then struck out to end the game.
Following the club's Monday off-day, however, Harper reclaimed his spot in the starting lineup for Tuesday's series opener against the Marlins. He had a pair of singles in that one, but he's 0-for-16 with 10 strikeouts in four games since, including an 0-for-5 effort with three more strikeouts on Saturday.
The latest of those strikeouts came with the game potentially hanging in the balance in the seventh inning. With the Phillies trailing by two and the bases loaded with only one out, Harper struck out looking at a 96 mph fastball over the heart of the plate. He had a chance to redeem himself in the ninth, but chopped into a fielder's choice with two on and one out.
Though the Phils haven't acknowledged any type of lingering injury, is it possible he gets a day off on Sunday?
"I'll go in and think about that and make a decision for [Sunday's] lineup," Girardi said.