The Phillies Won a Game Because Ryan Howard Went Yard

The Phillies Won a Game Because Ryan Howard Went Yard

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With a dinger roughly every 13 at bats, Ryan Howard is Major League Baseball's active career leader in home runs per at bat. It took 18 trips to belt his first in 2012, but the timing could not have been much better.

The Big Piece made a new friend out in L.A. on Monday night. With Ted Lilly on the disabled list, 22-year-old Nate Eovaldi has been pressed into the Dodgers' rotation for the past month and a half, and Howard took to the young right-hander immediately. He gave one a ride to the left field wall for a long out on his first at bat. On the second, he finally got it over the top.

That solo shot in the fourth inning proved to be the game's decisive run, as Jimmy Rollins had a blast himself, and Juan Pierre chipped in an RBI in a 3-2 Phillies victory to open the series with Los Angeles. It's the Fightins' third win in a row, for those of you still keeping track.

While Howard will get most of the pub today, Joe Blanton arguably had the biggest hand in a huge win for the Phils. Blanton worked eight tremendous frames, holding the Dodgers to six hits and walking zero. When they did manage to get on the board in the sixth and seventh, Heavy B prevented those from becoming bigger innings, which is the main reason RyHo's homer can stand as the headliner.

The W is number eight of the season for Blanton. Jonathan Papelbon did his thing in the ninth to pick up his 20th save.

However, the story really is Howard, both because he hasn't fared too well in his short time back, but also that it's refreshing to see a visual reminder of the way he can impact games with one swing of the lumber. So far, he's 3-for-20 with a couple of walks.

Let's be honest: it's difficult to set expectations for Ryan Howard this season. The Inquirer's Phil Sheridan wrote yesterday if Piece is on the field and earning $20 million, it's reasonable to expect he perform up to that. Then again, he's not quite healthy, and how long will it take until the timing is there? Probably a lot faster if opposing teams keep feeding him Eovaldis, but we know that's not always the case.

Monday gave us reason to be excited about his progress though. He still has a ways to go obviously, but it appears at the very least Howard is still a danger to fans sitting in outfield seats at ballparks everywhere. These are exactly the kind of big hits the Phillies have missed all too often this year.

Going back to 2004, Ryan Howard homers once every 13.3 at bats. To put that in perspective, that's basically every five games. If he posts a figure even close to that the rest of the way, the Phillies clearly will win more frequently -- and maybe just maybe make this second half interesting after all.

Doug Pederson: Eagles rebound after getting 'lip bloodied a little bit'

Doug Pederson: Eagles rebound after getting 'lip bloodied a little bit'

They were great before the bye. They were bad since.

The Eagles rallied against the Lions only to lose late because of two turnovers. Then last week at Washington, they laid an egg.

But on Sunday, they looked like the pre-bye team — at least defensively — and handed the Vikings their first loss of the season.

"This is a team that for two weeks in a row has kind of got their lip bloodied a little bit," head coach Doug Pederson said after the 21-10 victory (see Instant Replay). "The Detroit game, obviously feeling sick about that one, and then last week in Washington not playing well and up to our potential.

"These guys are professionals. They know how to get themselves ready to go. I don't feel like I have to motivate them. ... They really took it upon themselves this week to really make the corrections, No. 1, from last week and the adjustments. The veterans, the leadership stood up today, took command of the game, and that's what you like to see from this group."

More from Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz:

The defense
If the Eagles were going to win this game, the defense would have to dominate.

It did (see story).

The Vikings finished with only 282 yards from scrimmage — or 52 more than the Redskins rushed for last week against the Eagles.

The Eagles held Minnesota to 93 yards rushing (3.4 per carry) and battered Sam Bradford, who was 24 for 41 for 224 yards with a pick and a garbage-time TD. They sacked him six times (they had zero last week) and forced him to fumble four times. Bradford entered the game without a turnover this season.

"I think the guys just put it in their mind to play better than last week," Pederson understated. "Our defensive line really came off the ball today, really took it upon themselves to just attack the line of scrimmage and play on their side.

Two of the Eagles' three takeaways occurred in the red zone and in the first quarter, when the game was scoreless. They picked off Bradford on 3rd-and-goal at the 6 and forced a fumble on 1st down at the 17.

"It's huge," Pederson said. "Our defense playing as well as they did down there and stopping them. ... It was fun to watch our defense today. That's the defense that we expect every week going forward."

Bring the heat
The Eagles blitzed more than they had all season (see story). 

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz prefers to let his front four bring the pressure, but it hadn't worked the last two weeks, and now they were facing Sam Bradford, who was familiar with the scheme.

"Anytime you know a quarterback on the other team and kind of know his strengths and weaknesses and things like that — just try to give him some different looks, put some pressure on him from different areas," Pederson said. "It was a great game plan. ... Sometimes just changing things up to help your guys be in position — we benefitted from that today, and guys did a nice job."

Going for two after a made PAT
Midway through the second quarter, Pederson took a point off the board and decided to go for two after the Vikings were penalized for hitting Caleb Sturgis on an extra point, which was successful.

Wentz made the conversion with a QB sneak.

"It was kind of a no-brainer, because you get the ball at the 1," Pederson said.

"I've got a lot of trust in our guys. If you don't work those situations in practice and talk about those situations, then yeah, negative things can happen. But I felt totally 100 percent confident in our guys to execute that play."

Another "no-brainer"
Pederson hasn't been afraid to go for it on fourth down — the Eagles entered the game 4 for 4 on fourth downs — and on Sunday he converted another.

On the aforementioned drive, the Eagles faced a 4th-and-2 at the Vikings' 44. After unsuccessfully trying to draw the Vikings offside, the Eagles called timeout ... and sent the offense back out to go for it.

"Sometimes at that point, they feel like you're going to rush the punt team out there and burn the timeout," Pederson said, "but I went with the offense. I just had total confidence that we were going to get the first down.

"It was a kind of, again, a no-brainer — almost like the two-point conversion."

The play was an run-pass option ... until Wentz dropped the snap. He then ran six yards for the first.

"Obviously when he dropped it, at that point, it was run all the way," Pederson said. "But great execution."

"One more shot"
With 15 seconds left in the first half, the Eagles had the ball at the Minnesota 17. 

Pederson sent out the field goal unit for a 35-yarder, but when the Vikings called timeout to ice Sturgis, it gave Pederson time to change his mind.

The offense came back onto the field. Wentz threw incomplete to Jordan Matthews in the end zone, and then Sturgis came back and hit the field goal.

"Take one more shot," Pederson said. "Max the protection. It's two-man route. It's either a completion or an incomplete pass."

Wentz said there was "a little indecisiveness on the sideline," but once the play was decided on ... 

"It was just a max protect throw to Jordan or throw it away," Wentz said. 'It was pretty plain and simple: Don't take a sack."

All's well that ends well
Wentz botched a handoff. He threw two ugly interceptions in the first quarter. 

OK, those things happen (see Wentz's overall evaluation).

But he also dropped three snaps. How?

"I'm not really sure," Wentz said. "I just have to catch the ball, for starters. Some of them were a little off, but those are the things that we have to clean up."

On one of the dropped snaps, he converted the 4th-and-2. On another, he recovered and found Darren Sproles for a 19-yard gain.

Now, about those interceptions. On the first, he overthrew a blanketed Brent Celek. On the second, he forced a throw to Nelson Agholor with too much purple around.

"That one was 3rd-and-12, and there's no need to force that one," Wentz said. "As a quarterback, sometimes that happens. There's really no rhyme or reason. You see things and you kick yourself in the tail after the play, but you learn from it and move on."

Picks aside, Wentz's numbers weren't pretty — 16 for 28 passing for 138 yards with a TD. Pederson said Wentz "might have been pressing a little bit early" but overall "played efficient."

"Love the way he settled in," Pederson said. "There was no panic for him and any of us on the sideline."

Big V
Wentz was sacked five times last week. On Sunday, he wasn't sacked at all.

The Eagles at times max-protected, but they also benefitted from the improved play of rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who was in his second game in place of suspended Lane Johnson.

Pederson said he didn't help Vaitai as much as he did against Washington.

"I felt he kind of settled in this week, did a nice job," Pederson said. "The run game obviously helps. ... We were in some two tight-end sets a little more today, and that obviously helped him a little bit. We'll evaluate the film tomorrow, but I thought overall he did a nice job."

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

For the first 40 yards of Josh Huff’s kick return touchdown on Sunday, he went untouched.

When he got to the Eagles’ 42-yard line, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh was the only guy left in his way.

Huff ran through him.

“Yeah, I can’t let a kicker tackle me,” Huff said. “If he would have tackled me, I really would have been pissed at myself.”

The 170-pound Walsh couldn’t make the tackle and was sent spinning as Huff ran through. Fifty-six yards later, Huff took off from the 2-yard line, flipping into the end zone to give the Eagles their first lead in an eventual 21-10 win over the Vikings (see Instant Replay).

Huff said he knew he was scoring as soon as he saw that he had just the kicker to beat.

With the Eagles’ down 3-0 and with their offense sputtering through the first quarter and change, Huff’s play was a game-changer (see 10 Observations).

“Josh did a great job on the return,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “[Special teams coordinator] Dave Fipp really has those guys ready every single week. You need those things. You need special teams scores.”

After Wendell Smallwood’s kick return touchdown last week, this is the first time in franchise history the Eagles have had kick return touchdowns in back-to-back games. They also have the NFL’s only two kick return touchdowns of the season (see Standout Plays).

“It’s super cool,” Smallwood said. “Now teams have to pick their poison. They can’t go away from one. They can’t say they’re not going to kick to Smallwood, then they kick to Huff and he takes it. I think we’re going to get a lot of teams’ attention.”

Huff also had a role in the Eagles’ offense against the Vikings. He caught four passes for 39 yards, including two that picked up first downs. His 14-yarder in the third helped set up the touchdown that sealed the win for the Eagles.

This season hasn’t been great offensively for Huff. He is clearly the Eagles’ fourth wideout and came into Sunday with just eight catches for 24 yards.

“Obviously, I want to play good on offense, but we have three great guys in front of me,” Huff said. “I’m doing what I can to stay ready and I’m at my best when those guys do need me. At the end of the day, as long as I’m doing my job and as long as I stay ready, today was evident. Whenever they call my number, I’m going to make the most of my opportunities.”

Huff finished off his 98-yard kick return touchdown the same way he finished off his 41-yard receiving touchdown in New England last year: With a flip.

Huff took off from the 2-yard line and did a front flip, landing in the middle in the black end zone on his backside.

“It’s just something that happens,” Huff said. “Everybody says I should have stuck the landing, but I’m not a gymnast.”