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Even in loss, Spencer Howard shows promise in debut with Phillies

Spencer Howard made his major-league debut for the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday. Absent were all the theatrics that usually come with every top prospect’s first game in the big leagues.

Spencer Howard debuted for the Phillies Sunday. (Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

A crowd would gather around section 101 to catch a glimpse of Howard’s first warm-up tosses in the home bullpen. Perhaps there would be a rush to buy Howard No. 48 t-shirts. The Coronavirus put this all on hold.

All of that didn’t seem to put a damper on his excitement. Phillies director of player development Josh Bonifay officially informed him of his call-up Friday night. He figured he was coming up soon after his start in Reading was scratched on Thursday in favor of an elongated bullpen session.

It hit him just a few days ago that his family and friends wouldn’t be in attendance. It was a bummer, but he takes comfort in knowing that they’re all watching from home safely in California.

He also took comfort in seeing the hundreds of smiling faces in the crowd. Who would have thought that a strategically placed piece of cardboard would make a difference?

“Coming back from the summer camp when it was just the blue bleachers, and then seeing the cardboard with the fan noises…It was OK, actually,” Howard said when asked about his nerves before the game.

The end result was an embarrassing loss for the Phillies, but the blame doesn’t fall on Howard.

He allowed four earned runs on seven hits through 4 and 2/3 innings. Most of the damage came from two first-pitch home runs from Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman, two of the best hitters in the sport.

“Tip your hat. Neither of them were perfect pitches. Mistakes are going to get capitalized up on in the big leagues,” Howard said.

Howard’s fastball sat around 93 mph. As he builds up arm strength in the coming weeks, the velocity should tick up closer to the upper 90s.

He threw a first-pitch strike to the first eight batters he faced. He struggled to stay out over the middle of the plate in the first but avoided major trouble. The Braves lineup is known for swinging early in the count and that’s exactly how they attacked Howard.

“I did feel like I was kind of getting ambushed,” Howard said. “When you don’t feel your sharpest, it feels like they’re seeing the ball really well. I definitely leaned heavier on my off-speed stuff, whether it be part of our game plan or not, that’s just how it unraveled today.”

Of the 81 pitches Howard threw Sunday, 42 of them were fastballs. None of them generated a swing and miss. His fastball usage dwindled after Freeman burned him on a pretty good one on the outside part of the plate:

After stranding a few in the first, Howard showcased his brilliance in the second. His at-bat against Adam Duvall will probably go down as one of the best sequences of the 2020 season.

He began the at-bat with a 95 mph fastball on the outside part of the plate for a strike. He followed up with a nasty curveball that generated a heavy swing and miss from Duvall, who went 2-for-2 with three RBIs in the first game of the doubleheader. A perfectly placed and well-framed four-seam fastball on the lower inside part of the plate for a called third strike retired Duvall on only three pitches:

Things began to unravel for Howard in the fifth. He was able to end on a positive note, striking out Marcell Ozuna with Freeman on third.

“To end on that, (there’s) a good taste in my mouth. Moving forward, it’ll be nice.”

His manager was also pleased with his performance, especially considering he avoided walking a ton of batters.

“He was able to throw strikes,” Joe Girardi said. “The first two guys get on and he’s able to not give up a run. He didn’t fall apart. Sometimes it’s tough to slow a younger person’s mind down when it’s their first start or even their first year and I thought he handled it pretty well.”

A perfect outing, or even a scoreless one, was probably too much to expect. Facing hitters in meaningless intrasquad games is far from a normal routine. Howard even admitted that it’s tough to feel adrenaline during the intrasquad exhibitions in Lehigh Valley. His swing-and-miss stuff isn’t quite there yet, but once it arrives it should transform into better results for both the Phillies and Howard.

He joked that he hoped and dreamed of throwing a complete-game shutout, but that obviously didn’t happen. He didn’t feel like he was at his sharpest, but Sunday’s outing was definitely something worth building off of.

“I would feel worse if I felt really sharp and pitched the same way that I did. I know what I need to work on and it’s time to get to work.”


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