PHILADELPHIA -- The third time was anything but the charm for Spencer Howard, but the Phillies may have nonetheless found their answer for their final rotation spot.
Making his third big league start of the season, the 24-year-old right-hander struggled with both his command and velocity en route to being lifted after just 2 1/3 innings in his shortest start yet. For the third time in as many Howard starts, however, Ranger Suárez took over and pitched brilliantly in relief to lead the Phils to a 5-2 win over the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park.
As has been the case in each of his three starts, Howard came out firing before abruptly hitting a wall. His fastball averaged 94.9 mph and he topped out at 97.3 mph while turning in a hitless first inning. In the third, however, he allowed a leadoff single to opposing starter Joe Ross, then was lifted after hitting Josh Harrison with a changeup two batters later. Howard's fastball averaged 92.6 mph and topped out at 93.6 mph in that troublesome third frame.
It was reminiscent of Howard's first two starts, when his fastball averaged 94.8 mph in the first inning and 94.5 mph in the second before dipping to 93.2 mph in the third and fourth innings, and 92.2 mph in the fifth.
“I can’t point to one specific reason. It does seem like there’s a wall that I’ve just got to push through,” Howard said. “I don’t know if it’s physical, mental, mechanical or whatnot. So yeah, just something to work on for sure. … I’m racking my brain, too. I can’t really put my finger on it.”
On the bright side for the Phillies, that wasn't the only pitching trend to continue on Saturday.
Entering with two on and only one out in the third, Suárez promptly induced a ground ball that likely should have been an inning-ending double play. Instead, Jean Segura booted it, allowing the runner to score from second. Still, Suárez retired the next two hitters to limit the damage, then proceeded to toss three hitless innings while striking out three and walking none. His ERA remains perfect over 17 1/3 innings in 10 appearances this season.
“He’s done a great job for us,” said Andrew McCutchen, who hit what proved to be a decisive three-run homer in the fourth inning. “He’s really picked up the slack for us, day in and day out, throwing at any time at any moment, and doing a tremendous job. Hats off to him for carrying us through this game. … It was good for him to show up and do what he does, and I look forward to him continuing to keep doing that.”
Naturally, the question becomes whether Suárez will be doing so in the same long-relief role or if he’s earned a shot at a starting gig. The 25-year-old lefty broke into the Majors as a starter in 2018, but he transitioned to a relief role for the '19 season.
“I’m really focused on helping the team win; that’s my main priority,” Suárez said through a team translator. “Whatever role they give me, I just want to help the team.”
For now, the team could certainly use some help in the final spot of the rotation. Outside of the quartet of Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez, Philadelphia’s other starters this season -- Howard, Matt Moore, Chase Anderson and David Hale -- have combined for a 6.63 ERA over 55 2/3 innings.
But with Howard, the club’s top prospect entering this season, flashing his potential -- albeit in brief spurts to begin games -- the Phillies may want to keep getting him valuable reps at the Major League level. And with the Phillies limiting Howard’s workload this season, piggybacking Suárez after Howard has proven to be a viable option.
“If they want to combine me with Spencer whenever he starts, that’s totally fine,” Suárez said. “Again, I just want to help the team win. Spencer’s a great pitcher, he’s very talented. Things haven’t worked out for him as much as we all would like, but I have 100 percent confidence that he’s going to be way better for us.”
Though Howard hasn’t pitched as deep into games as he would like, he and Suárez have combined to allow just four runs (three earned) over 17 1/3 innings in Howard’s three starts. An average of one earned run over 5 2/3 innings would certainly be a line most teams would take out of the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
“It’s worked out well combining these two,” manager Joe Girardi said. “And we’ll probably continue to do it.”