And Roberto Hernandez delivered a strong start — four hits, two runs, no walks in seven innings.
But Howard was the story.
He has been for days.
He uncoiled with a beautiful swing on a first-pitch fastball from lefty Vidal Nuno and sent the pitch over the 387-foot marker just to the left of center field to give the Phillies a 2-0 lead with two outs in the first inning. Howard’s two-run homer, his first longball at home since June 1, was his 16th of the season.
Five innings later, Howard scored the go-ahead run on a controversial play at the plate. He was first ruled out, but the umpires overturned the call because catcher Miguel Montero had not given Howard a clear path to the plate. That’s a violation of Rule 7.13, which Major League Baseball adopted this season to eliminate home plate collisions. Sometimes it seems all the rule does is create confusion.
A year ago, Howard would have been out by 12 feet.
“We were very fortunate,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “This year, that’s a run. In the last 100 years, it’s not a run.”
The Phillies were fortunate even before the call at the plate. Howard was only in position to score because Arizona second baseman Didi Gregorius dropped a two-out pop up in shallow center field. Howard, who had reached base on a two-out walk, had actually slowed up considerably as he rounded second and headed for third. He later said third base coach Pete Mackanin had signaled him to ease up only to speed him up when the ball dropped. Had Howard been running hard, the play at the plate would have been closer, but probably just as nebulous because that’s what this new rule has become.
“There is a lot of judgment there and a bit of confusion,” Sandberg said. “Even three months into the season.”
Howard wasn’t about to complain with the umpires’ ultimate decision.
“We’ve had two or three cases where we’ve had that go completely different ways, against us,” he said. “So it was good to see something that went in our direction. It was clear there was no path for me.”
Sandberg had sat Howard the previous two times the Phillies faced a lefty. It was all part of a three-game benching for the struggling slugger. Sandberg said he played Howard because he wanted to see if the first baseman could build off the two hits he had Saturday night.
Howard did. The home run swing was a beauty.
As Howard rounded first base, he kissed his right hand and pointed to the heavens.
“It’s something personal,” Howard said after the game.
Howard has gone through a tough time lately. He’s been benched and booed. There have been reports that the team is trying to trade him or could release him at the end of the season.
Howard was asked if Sunday’s home run was personally satisfying given the week he had.
“Anytime you hit a home run, it’s satisfying,” he said. “Whether it was the week I had or if I’ve hit five in a week, it’s always going to feel good.”
It will be interesting to see what Sandberg does with his lineups in the coming days. The Phillies are off to New York to play the Mets and they face three right-handers the next three days. It’s difficult to imagine Howard not playing at least the first two games. Wednesday is a day game.
Sandberg was asked if he believed Howard had been motivated by the three-game benching.
“We’ll see,” he said. “These are a couple of games he can build on and continue to contribute.”
Though he was happy after the game, Howard left no doubt that this has been a tough week for him.
“You want to trade places?” the $125-million first baseman asked a reporter after the game. “You want to see what it’s like?
“For me, I’m good,” Howard continued. “Like I said before, it’s all about putting things in perspective. There’s a lot of outside stuff, a lot of people who have opinions. They can’t — you don’t — walk in my shoes so you don’t know what it’s like.
“This is what happens. We get paid a lot of money to play here and we’re in a magnifying glass. Yeah, it’s tough. You’ve got all this stuff going on but you try to turn the other cheek and stay positive. The haters and all the naysayers and all that stuff — I still have love for them because I’m a positive guy.”
On Sunday, the positive guy was also a productive guy.