For the second time in as many big league starts this season, Spencer Howard was cruising -- until he suddenly wasn't.
Though he pitched deeper into the game this time around, Howard once again seemed to abruptly lose his command and some of his velocity in the Phillies' 3-2 win over the Marlins on Thursday at loanDepot park. Ranger Suárez helped limit the damage to just one run after inheriting a bases-loaded, no-out jam from Howard, and with the game later tied at 2 in the ninth, Odúbel Herrera hit a leadoff triple before scoring what proved to be the game-winning run when Ronald Torreyes narrowly beat out a potential inning-ending double play.
As for Howard, the Phillies' right-hander retired 12 of the first 14 batters he faced, breezing through four scoreless frames. His four-seam fastball averaged 93.6 mph in the first inning -- and was still sitting at 93.6 mph in the fourth. Though the 24-year-old's overall velocity was down from his Saturday start, the consistency was undoubtedly an encouraging sign.
That all changed in the fifth. Howard allowed a leadoff single to Sandy León before issuing back-to-back walks to end his day after four-plus innings. After Howard threw strikes on 36 of his 51 pitches through four innings, only six of his 15 pitches in the fifth went for strikes -- and that includes two called strikes that actually appeared to be outside the zone. His four-seamer averaged just 92.2 mph in that troublesome frame.
Still, Howard once again showed that he has the stuff to contribute at the Major League level. Before hitting a wall in the fifth, he had racked up four strikeouts and allowed only one hit and one walk through four innings, all while throwing strikes on 70.6 percent of his pitches.
"I thought today was a step forward," said manager Joe Girardi.
Howard echoed that sentiment, though both acknowledged that the downtick in velocity was not a set plan.
"That's just where he was today [velocity-wise]," Girardi said. "There's a lot of things in this world that we all try to make sense out of and we can't, so you deal with it as it comes. That's all."
Howard was able to provide a slightly better explanation, saying he struggled to repeat his mechanics throughout his outing -- something that finally caught up with him in the fifth.
"I think I just snowballed a little bit [with] bad mechanics on top of each other, then trying too hard to fix it, and in turn, making it worse," Howard said. "But I still think it's a step in the right direction. [The fluctuating velocity] is just a product of not really maintaining consistent mechanics to this point. Definitely, for me, moving forward, that's going to be a focus."
Regardless of how Howard's day ended, his performance -- coupled with another impressive showing from Suárez -- provided some hope for the Phils in their search to plug the No. 5 hole in their rotation. Vince Velasquez has emerged as a quality No. 4 option behind Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin, but Philadelphia needs another arm beyond those four. Phillies starters outside of that quartet had a 7.30 ERA in 13 starts entering Thursday.
After following Howard with two scoreless innings on Saturday, Suárez turned in three spotless frames -- and potentially saved the game by allowing just the one runner to score in the bases-loaded, no-out jam he inherited -- on Thursday.
"He was nasty today. He got a lot of awkward swings," said Rhys Hoskins, who hit his 11th homer of the season in the fourth inning. "Spencer was able to give us some good innings today. ... But for Ranger to come in with bases loaded, nobody out, and we're able to get out of that giving up only one run -- who knows how that game goes if Ranger can't give us a little bit of length after that. He was huge for us today."
Some of the Phillies' other lingering issues weren't a problem at all on Thursday. They played impeccable defense, including a diving catch from Roman Quinn in the seventh inning, a key pick-off by catcher Rafael Marchan in the eighth and a couple of impressive plays by Torreyes at short, all while Herrera continued to make their center-field woes a thing of the past with another strong performance.
So is a potential piggyback situation the solution to filling that final rotation spot?
"I think that's possible," Girardi said. "[But] if I need Ranger in other spots, I don't want to not use him to hold him back for a fifth day, just because you don't ever know what's going to happen. He gives me a second lefty out of the bullpen who also gets righties out. The piggyback idea is a great idea, but I'm not sure when I'm going to need him. That's the only problem."