Howard's End: Phils Pick Up Second Straight Series Win on a Walkoff

Howard's End: Phils Pick Up Second Straight Series Win on a Walkoff

After dispatching the Diamondbacks 3-0 on Saturday night, the Phillies won their second straight series with a 5-4 victory on Sunday. Cliff Lee ran into some trouble with the long ball but hung in for an eight-inning no-decision, allowing eight hits while striking out five. His bats swung back for him though, and the Phils made Arizona pay for walking Chase Utley to get to Ryan Howard with the bases loaded in the ninth. 
The D-Backs got out to an early lead on back-to-back homers in the second inning, but the skies weren't falling just yet. The Phils grabbed two back in the bottom of the frame, when John Mayberry Jr walked and was moved over on a Dom Brown double. JMjr would score on a wild pitch by Trevor Cahill before Erik Kratz roped a double to the wall in left, scoring Brown. 
Lee settled in and went through the Diamondbacks' lineup in short order, sending them down 1-2-3 in three straight innings. In the bottom of the fifth, Utley tied it up on a trademark chop swing homer to right. The Phils couldn't take the lead as Howard and Mayberry each grounded out, and in the top of the sixth, Arizona struck with another home run. Lee limited the damage by inducing a double play after Justin Upton got on, then got Stephen Drew to fly out and end the threat. Neither team would reach base over the next two innings, but the Phillies weren't ready to call it a weekend. 
Down a run in the bottom of the eighth, Utley and Howard put up two quick outs before Arizona pitcher David Hernandez got into more trouble than you usually see without the ball leaving the infield. JMjr got aboard with an infield single, then reached second on another fortuitous Arizona wild pitch. Dom Brown chipped a hit back at Hernandez, who chased the ball down and hastily threw it toward first, trying to beat the hustling Brown. The ball hit Brown (no pegs!), and Mayberry charged home and "beat" a throw from first base (umps owed him one), tying things up. The rough inning wasn't over for Hernandez, who was charged with another wild pitch, advancing Brown to second. Kratz singled him to third, but Takashi Saito was able to get pinch hitter Jimmy Rollins to fly out and end the threat. 
Jonathan Papelbon entered with the game tied in the top of the ninth. Justin Upton opened the inning with a single, but Jimmy, Chase, Ryan turned a WFC double play to clear the bases on the next at bat. Papelbon then gave up a walk to Drew, who moved to second when Michael Montero reached base on an error by Howard. Fortunately, Papelbon got pinch hitter Gerardo Parra to ground out. 
Josh Collmenter came in for Arizona with Juan Pierre leading off as a pinch hitter for Papelbon. Pierre singled to center, then reached second on a Nate Schierholtz sac. Laynce Nix PH'd for Kevin Frandsen and gave Charlie Manuel his second substitute hit of the inning, singling to right and moving Pierre to third. With Nix and Pierre on, Arizona manager Kirk Gibson called for the intentional walk to Utley, loading the bags for Howard. 
Howard's afternoon at that point included a three-strikeout, 0-4 performance, an error, and some boos. He had only three hits in his previous 28 at bats. Gibson probably wouldn't want to have to make the decision he faced in the bottom of the ninth again any time soon, but if he did, he'd probably do the same thing given everything he'd seen so far. It's not an enviable position. 
With the bags loaded and the outfield deep, Howard laced a single into right, bringing Pierre home to give the Phils a win. 
There were some nervous moments, beginning with the early home run trouble for Lee, but the Phils took advantage of late miscues and misfortunes for the Diamondbacks and ultimately a huge hit by a guy who really needed to see one. 
NotesThe Phillies held a moment of silence for Garrett Reid before the game, displaying his picture on the video board.
Braves come to town next… A third straight series win won't come easy.  
Nice Mets-Phillies reference in last night's The Newsroom. U-S-A.
Unrelated but still important question: How much would you pay for a bucket of beers at the table right in front of Billy Ocean?

Sixers frustrate Raptors, finding 'defensive identity'

Sixers frustrate Raptors, finding 'defensive identity'

The Toronto Raptors were the latest victims of the red-hot Sixers on Wednesday.

The Sixers held the highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference to more than 20 points below their average in a 94-89 win at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay).

The visiting Raptors were visibly and vocally frustrated after the game.

"They're a good team, they've been playing well, no disrespect to them, but we missed a lot of wide-open shots," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "Those are shots we normally make but we knew we had our hands full coming in here. We knew it was gonna be a grind-it-out game."

Blaming it on bad luck and missing "wide open shots" seems to be oversimplifying it just a tad. Toronto was held to 39.5 percent from the field and went just 6 of 24 from three.

A big factor in slowing down the Raptors is containing the dangerous backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Villanova product Kyle Lowry. DeRozan finished with 25 points, below his average of 28.2, which was in the top five in the league coming in.

Lowry was even more frustrated by the Sixers' swarming defense. He finished with 24 points but on just 5 of 13 from the field. He also committed five turnovers, picked up a technical foul and fouled out in the final seconds. When asked what the Sixers did to slow him down, Lowry wasn't buying into the hype.

"I think we got everything we wanted," Lowry said. "We got every shot we wanted. We just didn't convert it.

"They won the game. Give them credit. They played with passion and energy. That's one thing they got us on tonight."

You don't win seven out of nine games and take down the second-best team in the conference with sheer will. The Sixers have become a strong team on the defensive end of the floor.

They're currently 10th in the NBA in defensive rating. A big part of that has been the emergence of Joel Embiid as an elite rim protector. For as great as "The Process" has been offensively, his largest impact is really on the defensive end.

He wasn't the only rookie engaged on defense Wednesday night. Dario Saric came through with consecutive blocks of Norman Powell and Jared Sullinger in the early fourth quarter, denying the Raptors a chance to cut into the Sixers' lead (see video).

"Dario never blocks shots and he had two in a row," Embiid said. "Especially at the rim like that, blocking Sullinger, that’s the type of play we need. The crowd obviously got into. I’m just glad he’s here with us like he promised he was going to be after two years."

Taking the torch from Saric, Embiid's block on a Lowry drive with 22.9 seconds left sealed arguably the Sixers' biggest win of the season, moments after Covington rejected a Lowry three (see video).

"One thing I care about is defense," Embiid said. "Everybody around me has to follow my lead because I am the last line of defense. One thing I care about in my career is winning Defensive Player of the Year. These guys know they can go for steals, and make stops, since I am the last guy there to block the shot.

"I don’t think it’s a fluke. We’re competing, playing great defense, winning games, and we found what we’re looking for. Everybody was trying to find themselves, and we all still have a lot to learn. We have some great players that are coming together."

Prior to the game, Casey had some lofty praise for the rookie big man. He compared Embiid to a former Rookie of the Year and 2016 inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Shaquille O'Neal.

He walked away from this game even more impressed.

"He's a very talented player," Casey said of Embiid after the game. "He made a difference at the rim. Challenging shots. Offensively, he's different because if you go out on him too quick, he's gonna drive by your big. His ability to attack the rim and shoot the three, his post play. And again, he's becoming a better passer so he's gonna be a handful. We know that."

Like any season, there are going to be ups and downs. For the Sixers it's been mostly downs for three straight years. This recent run has breathed new life into this franchise and this fan base.

Embiid's ascension into a legitimate superstar has been a huge help. Dario Saric coming from overseas to provide his grit, skill and basketball IQ has been key. T.J. McConnell's promotion to the starting lineup and the additions of veterans like Ersan Ilyasova and Gerald Henderson have steadied the ship.

But as Brett Brown has said many times, the Sixers bread is buttered on the defensive end of the floor.

"I get very excited and proud of our group when they hear me talk so much about defensive identity," Brown said. "You know, who are we? How are you going to build a program? How are you going to grow the program? Words are cheap. I think results are real. And lately, they're buying in and executing our defensive game plan and they're playing with a tremendous spirit and togetherness, they really get into playing defense. That is beyond exciting for me."

Watch: Nik Stauskas sings 10-9-8-76ers song after win over Raptors

Watch: Nik Stauskas sings 10-9-8-76ers song after win over Raptors

The Sixers have been enjoying their anthem quite a bit lately.

After taking down the Raptors on Wednesday night, 94-89, the Sixers have now won seven of their last nine games. That's pretty crazy considering they won just 10 times out of the entire 82-game season in 2015-16.

So the Sixers and their fans are soaking up this victorious stretch — as they should.

Nik Stauskas was especially doing that while heading to the locker room with a win over the Eastern Conference's second-best team. It looks like "Sauce" loves the 10-9-8-76ers jam, played after each victory.

Per CSN's John Clark ...

If you're not familiar with the song, check it out here. It's really catchy and you'll have it stuck in your head following one listen.