Motivated Howard eyes healthy, productive '14

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Motivated Howard eyes healthy, productive '14

ATLANTA -- Looking leaner and moving better than the last time he was seen on the field with his Phillies teammates, Ryan Howard joined the club for pregame workouts at Turner Field on Thursday.

Howard, who had season-ending knee surgery in July, took ground balls, batting practice and ran the bases. He will do so Friday, Saturday and Sunday before this woeful Phillies season comes to an end.

After dealing with two injury-plagued seasons and hearing the whispers -- shouts in some quarters -- that his best days are behind him, Howard says he has something to prove in 2014.

“That I’m healthy, No. 1,” he said. “And that I’m capable of doing the things I can do.

“I’m focused on getting this team and this organization back to where we belong, and that’s on top.”

Howard, who turns 34 in November, has spent the last couple of months rehabbing in Clearwater. He recently began playing in games in the Florida Instructional League. He requested to join the big club for the final series of the season in Atlanta and team officials were all for it.

“I just wanted to be here, end the season with the fellas,” he said. “I know it’s been a hard year for us as an organization, for us as a team, for myself personally. I just wanted to be here with them, be able to ride it out and just kind of watch, cheer them on the rest of the way and hopefully end things on a good note and head into 2014 on a high.”

Howard averaged 670 plate appearances from 2006 to 2011. He had just 654 total plate appearances in 2012 and 2013 as he dealt with injuries to his left Achilles and knee.

Howard’s production slipped with his health.

“It’s my back foot, my pivot foot, my power foot,” he said of his left side. “Not being able to sit back on it as much as I want in my stance -- pivoting on it, moving on it. I would say, yeah, it definitely played a factor.

“It’s not what you sign up for. It’s the unfortunate side of the game where sometimes injuries happen, freak things happen. For me, it’s just about getting 100 percent healthy, getting back to where I know I can be, how I know I can play. I’ll put all my focus on that this offseason and come out ready for 2014.”

The leg injuries prevented Howard from getting in top physical condition the last two seasons, and that affected his play.

New manager Ryne Sandberg is stressing conditioning with the whole team. He has mentioned a number of times that, while he understands why Howard wasn’t in top shape the last two seasons, he wants him to reach that point in 2014.

Howard said he was about 260 pounds before the surgery in July. He said he was about 248 Thursday. He looked trimmer, but stronger. He’s been working in the weight room in Clearwater. Howard said he will spend some time in Philadelphia the next few weeks then return to Florida in mid to late October. He will stay on a fitness program regardless of where he is. He will start hitting and doing baseball work in December.

“Obviously, when you can’t use your legs, it’s tough to do cardio,” Howard said. “The goal is to have my legs this offseason and do the cardio and everything that I need to do -- work on speed and agility. My goal is to come back and be as efficient as I can be for 2014, in all aspects.”

Howard's goal is to play in 162 games next season. That won't happen. Sandberg will get him days off. Still, Sandberg hopes that Howard produces to the point where it's difficult to give him a day off.

Howard played in 80 games this season and hit .266 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs. He struck out 95 times in 286 at-bats. Against lefties, Howard hit just .173 (14 for 81).

Sandberg has questioned Howard’s game preparation. The manager said he would like to see Howard look at more video of opposing pitchers.

“There are some times when I go in and look at video," Howard said. "I understand it, and I think it’s something I will try more to incorporate next year. Before it was one of those things where if I felt good, I didn’t feel like I needed to look at video. But I think it is something I’ll incorporate more next year.”

Howard is owed $85 million the next three seasons. That makes him virtually untradeable. He is aware that some have written him off, and he said he draws motivation from that.

“Sure,” he said. “I think it drives people. I think a lot of guys say they don’t listen to it -- and you try not to -- but, you know, it trickles in. You become motivated, a little fired up as far as that is concerned. But the main focus is for me to be fired up for myself, wanting to prove it to my teammates more than someone else.

“I’ve seen the stuff. I’ve seen stuff in the offseason when we didn’t make the playoffs. All you can do is go out there the next year and put your best foot forward -- play for yourself, play for your teammates, your organization, your fans. Just put all that to rest by doing it on the field.”

Tonight's lineup: Struggling Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp sit

Tonight's lineup: Struggling Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp sit

Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp, both struggling mightily through the first month of the season, will get Saturday night off when the Phillies take on the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

Joseph is hitting .190 with one homer and 18 strikeouts in 18 games, while Rupp is batting .180 with one homer and 20 strikeouts through 15 games. Last season, Joseph had 21 home runs and Rupp 16.

Brock Stassi will spell Joseph at first base and bat seventh. Andrew Knapp takes over for Rupp behind the plate and will bat eighth.

Daniel Nava also receives a start, playing left field. The first-year Phillie is hitting .346 with a pair of homers and as many walks as strikeouts (seven).

Zach Eflin takes the mound in a meaningful start for the right-hander (see story). He opposes resurgent Dodgers righty Brandon McCarthy (see game notes).

Here are tonight's lineups:

Phillies
1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Daniel Nava, LF
7. Brock Stassi, 1B
8. Andrew Knapp, C
9. Zach Eflin, P

Dodgers
1. Andrew Toles, CF
2. Corey Seager, SS
3. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
4. Yasmani Grandal, C
5. Yasiel Puig, RF
6. Cody Bellinger, LF
7. Chase Utley, 2B
8. Chris Taylor, 3B
9. Brandon McCarthy, P

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Phils face resurgent Brandon McCarthy

Phillies (11-10) at Dodgers (12-12)
9:10 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies' six-game winning streak came to an abrupt end out west Friday night. The beauty of baseball is that you have a chance to start a new streak a day later. Zach Eflin looks to avenge a poor performance from last season while the Dodgers send out veteran righty Brandon McCarthy at home.

Here are five things to know for Saturday evening's game.

1. Two strong starts for Eflin
In his second season as a big-league starter, Eflin is off to a lot better start than last year. 

If you remember his MLB debut, he gave up eight runs and retired just eight batters against a Blue Jays team that could hit the snot out of the ball … and did. Through two starts, Eflin had a 10.80 ERA and two losses to his résumé before coming into his own over the next two months.

This year has been just about the opposite. Eflin clearly looks comfortable on a major-league mound. He's turned Clay Buchholz's spot in the rotation into a positive. He's allowed just three runs and one home run in 12 innings, good for a 2.25 ERA.

The modern thinking is that an ideal pitcher strikes out a lot of batters, avoids walks and home runs, and induces weak contact. Eflin has done all but the strikeouts. His sinker has been marvelous and the Mets/Braves had little chance to do damage against it. Pete Mackanin described the sinker as a bowling ball. That just about says it all. The sinker won't induce that many swings and misses — thus the lack of strikeouts — but he can throw it in the zone and keep hitters off balance.

The Dodgers kind of ended Eflin's season last year. In reality, it was dueling knee injuries that did Eflin in (see story), but the Dodgers were the last team to take advantage of an ailing Eflin, hitting three home runs and scoring seven runs in just three innings Aug. 8. Even the outs in that game were generally line drives. Chase Utley, Yasmani Grandal and Corey Seager — all of whom could be in the lineup Saturday — took the now-23-year-old righty deep.

Being a righty against the Dodgers isn't all that advantageous as the team boasts those three hitters and Adrian Gonzalez, Andrew Toles and Cody Bellinger as lefties who can put up disruptive plate appearances. Unfortunately for the Phillies, they have a rotation full of righties and are unable to take advantage of the Dodgers' platoon issues.

2. Dodgers send out resurgent righty
The first two seasons of Brandon McCarthy's deal with the Dodgers essentially went by the wayside. Now, the 33-year-old starter is picking up where he left off in 2014.

McCarthy has long been one of the more entertaining and thoughtful players in baseball, as evidenced by his Twitter account. The veteran righty has also been a steadily average to occasionally above-average pitcher in 12 MLB seasons, bouncing around teams mostly on the west coast. He posted career-worst numbers with the Diamondbacks in the first half of 2014, but he rebounded in the second half with the Yankees, pitching to a 2.89 ERA in 90 innings despite the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

He parlayed that second half into a four-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers and that was almost immediately derailed by Tommy John surgery. Going into 2017, he had thrown just 63 innings and made only 13 starts in the first half of his contract. McCarthy was one of many Dodgers pitchers on the disabled list during a 2016 with a record-setting number of injuries for the club.

But now he's apparently back to form and, perhaps most importantly, he's healthy. He's made it through four starts unscathed this year and is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA to boot. He's allowed just 18 hits in 24 innings. Similar to Eflin, he relies primarily on a dynamic sinker that sits in the low-to-mid 90s. He also features a low 90s cutter and an 80 mph curveball, both of which grade out well this season.

Only three current Phillies have any history vs. McCarthy. With his history in the AL West with the Mariners, Michael Saunders has faced McCarthy plenty with sub-par results, going 2 for 13 with five strikeouts. Freddy Galvis is 3 for 3 off the righty while Andres Blanco is 0 for 1.

3. How does the Dodgers' bullpen stack up?
Going into Friday's action, the Dodgers' bullpen had a 3.15 collective ERA, good for eighth in all of baseball and second-best in the National League. As a whole, the crew strikes out 10.29 batters per nine innings and has the highest wins above replacement of any bullpen in baseball.

Any conversation about the Dodgers' 'pen starts with Kenley Jansen, one of the premier closers in the game today. He overwhelms hitters with a cutter many consider reminiscent of Mariano Rivera. It isn't quite up to Rivera's level, but it is still wildly effective. He has a 2.16 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings this season, locking down six saves in six chances. He dominated the Phillies on Friday night.

Setting up for him primarily is righty flamethrower Pedro Baez. Baez pitches with a dreadfully slow pace but great results, striking out batters at a similar clip and takes a 1.08 ERA into the weekend. Righty Josh Fields and lefty Grant Dayton each hadn't allowed a run this year before Fields let one up in the eighth inning Friday while lefty Luis Avilan has been effective primarily vs. lefties. 

While Chris Hatcher and Ross Stripling, both righties, each has a loss this season, they've still achieved OK results pitching often in low leverage situations. The biggest disappointment for Los Angeles has been the offseason signing of former Giants closer Sergio Romo. The 34-year-old has a 10.57 ERA through 10 appearances and has walked as many batters as he's struck out. If the Phillies get to face Romo in a big situation this weekend, it'll be a tremendous opportunity to do some damage.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Freddy Galvis takes a 10-game hitting streak into action on Saturday night. Not only does he have good numbers off McCarthy, he's also simply off to the best start to his career. The Phillies' shortstop has traditionally been a better second half hitter but he has a career-best .269 average and .487 slugging percentage thus far.

Dodgers: While he is currently playing corner outfield, rookie Cody Bellinger is the Dodgers' first baseman of the future. Currently the No. 10 prospect in baseball, he had five home runs in Triple A Oklahoma City and is projected to have legitimate in-game power at the major league level. 

5. This and that
• The Phillies went 2-4 vs. the Dodgers last season and haven't won a series at Dodger Stadium since April 21-24, 2014, when they took three of four.

• Frequent trade partners in recent history, the Phillies and Dodgers have teamed up for eight trades since the 2012 trade deadline. Eflin himself came to the Phillies in the 2014 Jimmy Rollins trade.

• McCarthy is typically at his worst in April. He has a 5.01 ERA for March/April in his career, his worst for any month. However, he pitched well the two times he faced the Phillies. He threw eight shutout innings in 2013 and gave up two runs while striking out 12 in seven innings during the 2014 season.