LOS ANGELES -- Spencer Howard sees progress.
He recently discovered flaws in his pitching mechanics, which he believes explains the drops in velocity and command as he pitches into the third, fourth and fifth innings. He made some adjustments before Monday night’s 3-1 loss to the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, and he believes he held them well early.
Howard was not perfect in four-plus innings against the Dodgers. He allowed two home runs, which scored Los Angeles’ only three runs. But he believes he found something positive to carry into his next start.
“I think, overall, it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
Howard retired the first nine batters he faced, which continued a trend of dominating hitters the first time he sees them. Batters entered the game batting .083 with a .396 OPS against him the first time they face him as a starter. They were batting .222 with an .833 OPS the second time they saw him.
Howard ran into trouble in the fourth and fifth. Howard walked Mookie Betts to start the fourth, but he retired Gavin Lux and Justin Turner. It was not easy, though. He elevated a few pitches above and out of the zone, including a couple to Will Smith.
Howard threw Smith an 0-1 fastball outside to even the count. His 1-1 fastball was up. Howard tried to spot his next pitch on the outside corner, but he pushed a 91.9 mph fastball inside. Smith crushed it to left field for a home run to hand the Dodgers a 2-1 lead.
The Phillies tried to push Howard into the fifth, an inning he had not recorded an out in as a starter this season.
“His pitch count was pretty low going into the fourth inning, and that’s why I left him in there,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “His stuff didn’t really fall off. To me, it was pretty much the same.”
Leading off the fifth, Howard ended an eight-pitch at-bat to Chris Taylor with a 92.2 mph fastball that Taylor clubbed to left for a homer to make it 3-1. It was Howard’s final pitch of the night.
“Just reverting back to how I had been pitching for pretty much the majority of this year, in and out,” Howard said about his fourth and fifth innings. “And then basically all of last year, too. Just my arm not catching up to my legs. …
“In my eyes at least, it was a step in the right direction because being able to finish that [fourth] inning out, throwing a good fastball down and away and then coming back out for the next one. … But for me, I think, yeah, just keep trying to pound that in and make that the new normal, I guess.”
Howard’s night could have felt entirely different if the Phillies’ offense had taken advantage of a few opportunities early. They scored a run in the first, but left the bases loaded. They left the bases loaded again in the fourth, although home-plate umpire Mike Estabrook called third strikes on Ronald Torreyes and Howard on two pitches that were out of the zone.
“It’s tough,” Girardi said. “I don’t think we got much help from the umpire in the one inning with Spencer Howard and Ronald Torreyes, and that’s pretty frustrating. We got some opportunities and we didn’t cash in on them. That’s the difference in the game.”
The Phillies entered Dodger Stadium on Monday feeling good about themselves. They had a four-game winning streak. They had won six of eight on a homestand against the Nationals, Braves and Yankees. They brought some positive vibes to Dodger Stadium with three vocal cheering sections for three Phillies rookies from California: Howard, infielder Luke Williams and reliever Bailey Falter. Howard’s crew roared as he struck out Betts on a slow curveball to start the game, and he doubled for the first hit of his career in the second.
Howard threw a few of those slow breaking balls.
“I'm not intentionally trying to make it super slow, but I have been getting a little bit too obsessed with getting perfect rotation on the ball,” he said. “So that makes my arm slot rise a little bit and get less whippy. But at the end of the day, if I just rip it and throw it with intent, that would be a little bit sharper.”
Williams’ fan section cheered when he picked up a pinch-hit single in the sixth. Falter’s cheering section hollered as he pitched three scoreless innings. They will be harder to hear Tuesday. The Dodgers are expecting 40,000 fans as they open up 100 percent capacity for the first time this season.
“First time pitching during the season in California was awesome,” Howard said. “Having my family here and my buddies here was incredible. Definitely a little bit amped up to start the night and seeing the ball well. It was fun.”