With drought over, will Howard find his power?

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With drought over, will Howard find his power?

He skipped the spin and went right to what we already knew. Asked for his evaluation of a team that’s been under .500 for much of the season, Ruben Amaro Jr. didn’t bother to soften his words.

“Obviously we haven’t performed the way that we hoped,” Amaro said on Monday. “Particularly the guys who are our core guys.”

He named names. Amaro noted that Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz haven’t played much. He said Jimmy Rollins “has been OK, but I think Jimmy has also had better years than he has so far this year.” And then he got to Ryan Howard.

The general manager said Howard “hasn’t performed the way you’d typically expect,” which was pretty gentle language for a cleanup hitter that’s had a difficult season as far as power is concerned. Entering Monday’s game against the Washington Nationals, Howard hadn’t hit a home run since May 29. It was the second longest drought of his career.

It was an ugly streak, but it’s over now. Howard hit a homer in the second inning of the Phillies’ dramatic (if unnecessarily so) 5-4 win over Washington (see story). It was the first time Howard hit a ball out of any park in weeks, a stretch of 17 games and 71 plate appearances.

“It felt good,” Howard said. “I’ve just been trying to put together some good [at-bats] and let the power come as it comes.”

The power has not come as readily as it once did. Howard has eight home runs this season, which is not a great total for him -- not in June, not after the Phillies have played more than 40 percent of their schedule. If his baseball numbers were a little bigger and his contract numbers were a little smaller, you might hear all kinds or rumors and reports about Howard being a trade piece. That’s obviously not the case. Howard and the Phils are stuck with each other.

But while he hasn’t mashed as many home runs as he or the team would like, Howard has hit the ball better lately. He’s hitting .306 with nine extra-base hits in June. He’s hitting .391 in the last seven days. He went 3 for 3 against the Nationals on Monday, which raised his batting average to .274.

They still need Howard to drive in runs -- preferably by driving the ball over a wall of his choosing -- but hitting for a higher average, at least for now, is OK by Charlie Manuel. The manager has said pretty much the same thing about Howard’s hitting all season: First, that he’s not worried about Howard and, second, that if Howard hits for a higher average, then his power will return.

“Ryan, if he hits for a high average, like I said, if he hits .280, .300, he’ll knock in a lot of runs and he’ll hit a lot of home runs, too,” Manuel said. “Just by hitting the ball correctly.

“When he played games in Minnesota, Howard hit the ball very good. He got some hits there. The other day in Colorado, he hit two balls into the shift pretty good, and the two singles he hit, he hit pretty good. His swing’s been getting better. He’s been staying on the ball better. He’s been putting the fat part of the bat on the ball. He’s been doing better.”

Howard’s left knee, however, isn’t doing much better. According to Manuel, the soreness “comes and goes” for the first baseman. After the game, Howard was limping around the clubhouse a little.

“It’s always a grind,” Howard said about trying to improve at the plate. “With the knee. Without the knee. That’s always a grind. Yeah, it’s been a grind, just trying to go out there and do what I can. I was able to get a couple knocks tonight.”

It’s a start. Again, they need some of those knocks to travel a good distance and do so regularly. They are paying him a lot of money, and it isn’t so he can be a singles hitter in the four-hole. But if Manuel is right -- if hitting the ball well will eventually lead to hitting the ball far -- then perhaps Howard is about to get going. Does the slugger feel like he might start slugging soon?

“We’ll see,” he said.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

We haven’t seen much so far. Maybe that will change.

Best of MLB: Josh Reddick's big day helps Astros sweep A's

Best of MLB: Josh Reddick's big day helps Astros sweep A's

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Josh Reddick homered and scored four runs, Jake Marisnick and Marwin Gonzalez each went deep and the Houston Astros beat the Oakland Athletics 12-9 on Thursday.

The major league-leading Astros completed a four-game sweep with their 10th straight victory in Oakland and their 15th win in 16 games against the A's overall. They've won 12 of their last 14 road games. Their 27-8 record away from home is the best in the majors.

Reddick also doubled, tripled and drew a walk, and Marisnick and Gonzalez each drove in three runs.

David Paulino (2-0) struck out six and gave up three runs, seven hits and two walks. The 23-year-old rookie right-hander struck out five of his first six batters in his sixth career start.

Astros center fielder George Springer left with a left hand contusion after being struck by a fastball from Jesse Hahn (3-5) leading off the game. The ball also grazed Springer's left shoulder. Springer is tied for second in the AL with 21 home runs. His status is day-to-day (see full recap).

Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks blast Rockies
DENVER -- Paul Goldschmidt and Chris Owings hit three-run homers, Zack Godley threw well into the eighth inning, and the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the Colorado Rockies 10-3 on Thursday.

Goldschmidt finished with three hits and four RBIs to increase his season total to 64, tops in the majors.

Arizona took two of three in the NL West matchup and is now tied with Colorado for second place in the division behind the Dodgers. The Diamondbacks have won 12 of 14 and are a season-high 19 games above .500.

Godley gave up a home run to Charlie Blackmon to lead off the first inning, but shut down the Rockies from there.

Blackmon drew a walk in the third, then Godley erased him with a double-play ball to end the inning. He didn't allow a hit after Nolan Arenado's one-out single in the first and retired 19 of the next 20 batters before Raimel Tapia and Pat Valaika singled and doubled to lead off the eighth.

Godley (3-1) allowed three runs on four hits and struck out eight in seven-plus innings. He also helped himself with an RBI single in the eighth.

The Diamondbacks hit a Colorado rookie pitcher hard for the second straight night. Wednesday they scored 10 runs in the fourth off Jeff Hoffman, and Thursday they battered right-hander Antonio Senzatela (9-3) for nine runs in five innings.

Owings' homer in the third, his ninth, made it 5-1, and Goldschmidt hit his 18th to cap a four-run fourth to make it 9-1 (see full recap).

Knebel sets strikeout mark as Brewers top Pirates
MILWAUKEE -- Corey Knebel broke Arodlis Chapman's modern-era record for most consecutive games by a reliever with a strikeout at a season's start, fanning a batter for the 38th straight game and closing out the Milwaukee Brewers' 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday.

Knebel struck out Josh Bell on a foul tip leading off the ninth. The 25-year-old right-hander retired Elias Diaz and Andrew McCutchen on popouts, finishing a four-hitter for his 12th save in 15 chances.

Chapman had set the mark since 1900 as part of a streak of 49 games for Cincinnati that began in August 2013 and ended the following August.

Travis Shaw drove in three runs with a homer and two doubles, and he came within inches of a second home run.

Chase Anderson (6-2) allowed two runs and two hits in six innings (see full recap).

Pete Mackanin 'not pleased' with Odubel Herrera's base-running blunders

Pete Mackanin 'not pleased' with Odubel Herrera's base-running blunders

Odubel Herrera’s return to the dugout was so slow that home plate umpire Nic Lentz had to clap to speed him along. Herrera obliged, accelerating to an effortless jog until he left Lentz’s sight. Then he went back to a hung head and a crawling pace as he reached the steps. Boos met his ears through it all. 

Herrera was picked off third base by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina for the second out of the fourth inning on Thursday. It didn’t matter much as the Phillies beat the Cardinals, 5-1 (see Instant Replay), guided by Aaron Nola’s the best outing in a long time (see story)

However, Herrera made a base-running blunder at the same spot Wednesday night, when he blew through a Juan Samuel stop sign and was out by a mile at home plate to make the final out in the ninth inning of a tie game. And later on Thursday, while on second during a running count and Maikel Franco behind him at first, Herrera didn’t run on the pitch.

These are mistakes any big-leaguer should avoid. And when he’s the only player a team has signed to a long-term deal, which is supposed to last into a new era that involves winning games, the mistakes sting a bit more. 

“I’m not pleased about it,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. 

Had Wednesday night’s gaffe been avoided, maybe the Phillies could have gone on to win. Thursday’s was more embarrassing than damaging. While displeased, Mackanin, who said he thought about giving Herrera Thursday off, understood what happened this time around.

“He was running contact. And when you’re running contact, you’re susceptible to getting picked off by a catcher, especially with a left-handed hitter up,” Mackanin said. “You have to be aware of that. They’re taught to be aware of that. He just didn’t take that first hard step back. And that deters the catcher from throwing to third base. It happened.” 

The Phillies have been picked off eight times this season. Entering Thursday, only four teams had been picked off more. 

The Phillies own a run scoring percentage (percentage of base runners that eventually score) of 28.0, which puts them in the bottom third of the league. While much of that can be attributed to bad bats, mistakes like Herrera’s are not helping the cause. 

At 25, Herrera is still figuring this whole thing out. But he was the Phillies’ only All-Star last year and is supposed to be a consistent presence in the lineup. 

Andres Blanco, on the opposite end of the spectrum, first saw major-league action in 2004, and should be providing a consistent presence in the Phillies’ clubhouse. Yet on Thursday, starting at second base instead of Howie Kendrick, Blanco made a veteran play on the base paths, which felt like the remedy to Herrera’s mental lapses.

In the bottom of the fifth, with two outs and Blanco on second base, Freddy Galvis grounded a ball up the middle. Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz sent an errant flip to second to get the final out, and Blanco was smart enough to round third and score after the ball got loose in the infield. Mackanin called it a heads-up play. 

“That’s the kind of players you’re looking for, the guys that are going to look for those kinds of things to happen,” Mackanin said, “and they don't assume a play is going to be made and assume they might be able to take an extra base.

“He’s a veteran. I’m glad he paid attention.”