And on the 15th day, Iron Horse Howard will rest

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And on the 15th day, Iron Horse Howard will rest

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Ryan Howard has started all 14 of the Phillies' games this spring. That includes an intrasquad game and a contest against the Dominican Republic.

On Friday, he will get a day off.

Well, sort of.

Howard will work out in Clearwater while the Phillies send a team down I-75 to play the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte.

Manager Charlie Manuel has been riding Howard hard early in camp.

"If you're going to play 162 games, you've got to get in shape to play 300," Manuel said.

Manuel, of course, was kidding about playing Howard in 162 games. He’ll get days off during the season. But Manuel is serious about having Howard come into the season ready to go, especially after the slugging first baseman missed all of spring training and half of the regular season last year as he recovered from a torn left Achilles tendon.

“I felt like we had to get him in shape,” Manuel said. “He’s getting to where we want him. Hard work never hurt nobody. He’ll be in shape. I’ll monitor him and he’ll get his time off.”

Howard is having a good spring, hitting .364 with three homers and 11 RBIs.

Bullpen competition to heat up
Pitching coach Rich Dubee believes his pupils in the bullpen have had enough time to get loose in side work and games.

Now it’s getting to be time to show something.

“The competition begins here pretty soon,” Dubee said. “They should have enough reps in the bullpen and in games to start locking it.”

Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, Antonio Bastardo and Chad Durbin are assured bullpen jobs. That leaves three spots open. One of those spots seems to have Phillippe Aumont’s name on it. Another will likely go to a lefty such as Jeremy Horst, Jake Diekman or Raul Valdes. A cast that includes Mike Stutes, Aaron Cook, Justin De Fratus and B.J Rosenberg remains in the hunt, as well.

Horst hasn't had positive results in early work, but Dubee hasn’t forgotten the good work (1.15 ERA in 32 games) he did in half a season in the majors last year.

Ruf breaks out
Darin Ruf, who had been searching for hits, had a single, a double and three RBIs in Thursday’s 10-6 loss to the Twins.

“He’s going to be a really good hitter,” Manuel said. “I’ve seen guys struggle before. I don’t worry about that.”

Twins terror
Twins switch-hitter Aaron Hicks improved his chances of being his team’s opening day centerfielder by hitting three home runs off three different Phillies pitchers. The Twins traded two big-league centerfielders this winter. Denard Span went to the Nationals and Ben Revere to the Phillies.

Pitching news
Righthander Tyler Cloyd, who had been bothered by some forearm tightness, threw on the side Thursday.

Up next
Here is the Phillies' lineup for Friday’s game against the Rays in Port Charlotte:

Freddy Galvis SS

Kevin Frandsen 2B

Michael Young 3B

Carlos Ruiz C

John Mayberry Jr. 1B

Darin Ruf LF

Domonic Brown RF

Josh Fields DH

Michael Martinez CF

Kyle Kendrick starts for the Phillies again Rays’ lefty David Price, the 2012 American League Cy Young winner.

Adams, Stutes and Cook will also get work for the Phillies.

Aaron Altherr's clutch hits lead Phillies to another comeback win over MLB-best Dodgers

Aaron Altherr's clutch hits lead Phillies to another comeback win over MLB-best Dodgers

BOX SCORE

Somewhere in the basement of Citizens Bank Park sits a stash of champagne, chilled and ready to go for a celebration in the visiting clubhouse. It's only a matter of time before the Los Angeles Dodgers clinch their fifth straight National League West crown, but the Phillies would prefer it did not happen in their house.

The Phillies aren't saying that verbally.

They're saying it with their actions.

They've played some of their best and most exciting baseball of the season the last three nights in taking the first three games of a four-game series against the Dodgers. All three of the wins have been come-from-behind efforts. The Phillies set themselves up for a series sweep with a 7-5 win Wednesday night (see observations). The victory included two more big hits from Aaron Altherr and a game-ending catch by centerfielder Odubel Herrera that left you wondering how to say 'Wow!' in Spanish (see video).

Herrera burst into laughter when he was asked that question after the game.

His answer: "Wow!"

Altherr has delivered several Wow! moments in this series. There was his decisive grand slam against Clayton Kershaw in the opener, another home run in Tuesday night's win and four more RBIs on Wednesday night.

Altherr hit a game-tying, two-run home run in the seventh inning on a hanging breaking ball from Dodgers reliever Ross Stripling. Two batters later, Tommy Joseph went deep on another hanger from Stripling as the Phillies took a 5-4 lead.

The Phillies' bullpen has been excellent lately, but it struggled in this game and let leads of 2-1 and 5-4 get away.

But these Phillies aren't just playing out the string. They have young players trying to show they belong and that's creating problems for the 96-win Dodgers. After giving up the lead in the top of the eighth, the Phillies rallied for two runs in the bottom of the frame to take the lead for good. The rally featured a leadoff walk by Cesar Hernandez, a sacrifice bunt by Freddy Galvis, a Dodgers' error, an intentional walk to Rhys Hoskins to load the bases and a two-run line drive hit to right by Altherr to put the Phils ahead.

Altherr, activated less than two weeks ago after a month-long stay on the disabled list, has nine RBIs in the first three games of the series. For the season, he is hitting .281 with 19 homers and 60 RBIs in 97 games. His OPS is .890.

"I'm just seeing the ball really well now. I got my timing back," Altherr said. "It's good when those two things come together. I'm just a lot more relaxed at the plate. I'm driving the ball better.

"I think when I first came back I was probably trying to do too much. You know, just trying to make up for lost time. It wasn't working. I went back to relaxing at the plate and letting the ball come to me and putting a good swing on it."

Altherr's decisive two-run single with one out in the eighth came against right-hander Brandon Morrow. Lefty Luis Avilan started the inning and loaded the bases on an intentional walk to Hoskins one batter before Altherr came up.

"That's part of the game," Altherr said of the intentional walk. "But, obviously, you still want to prove them wrong in thinking I'm an easier out. I just wanted to do the best I could to hit the ball hard somewhere."

Jake Thompson pitched five innings, ran a high pitch count, but exited the game with a lead.

He enjoyed watching from the dugout as his teammates rallied for five runs in their final two at-bats to make it three straight against the Dodgers.

"I think it gives us a huge boost knowing who we're doing it against," Thompson said. "They didn't get that record by a fluke. That team is really, really good. I think it shows how far this team has come this year."

The Phillies are moving in the right direction. At least their record is. They were 29 games under .500 before the All-Star break. Wednesday night's win left them at 32-33 after the break and that means something to a rebuilding team that has put a premium on improvement.

"To win these three games is huge for our confidence," Altherr said. "We know we're a good team. We have a lot of talent on this team. Wins like these help us believe in ourselves even more and help us to believe we can do this in the years to come. We're definitely excited about the future."

The Phillies' three wins in this series have come with Kershaw, Yu Darvish and All-Star lefty Alex Wood on the mound. Those are three pretty good pitchers. The Phils will face righty Kenta Maeda in the series finale Thursday afternoon. A sweep would be a nice accomplishment. It would ensure that the Dodgers would not pop champagne corks in Philadelphia. And it would also give the Phillies a .500 record after the All-Star break, a little sign of progress as the team's fifth straight losing season winds down.

Best of MLB: Red Sox's Sale reaches 300 Ks; Marlins' Stanton hits 56th HR

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Best of MLB: Red Sox's Sale reaches 300 Ks; Marlins' Stanton hits 56th HR

BALTIMORE -- Chris Sale was at his very best -- right down to his momentous last pitch -- in another meaningful victory for the Boston Red Sox.

Sale struck out 13 to become the first AL pitcher in 18 years to reach the 300 mark, and Boston moved to the brink of clinching a playoff berth by beating the Baltimore Orioles 9-0 on Wednesday night.

Sale (17-7) reached the milestone on his 111th and final pitch, a called third strike against Ryan Flaherty to end the eighth inning. The last AL pitcher to fan 300 batters in a season was Boston's Pedro Martinez in 1999, when he set a club record with 313.

Red Sox manager John Farrell sent Sale back out for the eighth inning to give him a shot at getting No. 300 (see full recap).

Stanton hits 56th homer, Marlins sweep Mets
MIAMI -- Home runs before small crowds in the eighth inning of lopsided games between also-rans count, too, which is fortunate for Giancarlo Stanton.

Now he needs only five more for 61.

Stanton hit his major league-leading 56th homer in the eighth Wednesday to punctuate the Miami Marlins' 9-2 win over the New York Mets, which completed a three-game sweep.

Announced attendance was 16,033, but the actual turnout was perhaps one-third that total. The Marlins are destined to miss the playoffs for the 14th year in a row despite Stanton's homer show (see full recap).

Rays, Snell end Cubs' 7-game winning streak
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Their seven-game winning streak is over and the Chicago Cubs are still being challenged for the NL Central lead with 11 games left in the season.

Blake Snell gave up two hits in seven shutout innings and the Tampa Bay Rays ended the Cubs' season-best winning streak 8-1 on Wednesday night.

The Cubs, who had not lost since being swept by the Milwaukee Brewers in a three-game series in Chicago on Sept. 8-10, are scheduled to open a four-game series in Milwaukee on Thursday night, holding a 3 1/2-game lead over the Brewers.

"It's going to be very exciting," manager Joe Maddon said. "We got the split here, which is good. Moving it forward, you've got to beat ‘em straight-up sometimes and that's what we're going to have to do,” (see full recap).

Nationals rally for 6 runs in 8th to beat Braves
ATLANTA -- Manager Dusty Baker was hardly surprised that the heart of the Nationals' order took so many pitches in the eighth inning.

"It's easy to be patient when they're not near the strike zone," he said. "We capitalized on it. You're going to get hits after that."

Braves closer Arodys Vizcaino issued three bases-loaded walks in the six-run eighth, Gio Gonzalez pitched seven strong innings and Washington beat Atlanta 7-3 on Wednesday night (see full recap).