Phillies sweep Astros behind Ryan Howard slam

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Phillies sweep Astros behind Ryan Howard slam

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The last two weeks have been filled with highs and lows for Ryan Howard.

This was most definitely a high.

Howard capped a terrific at-bat -- “A battling at-bat,” manager Ryne Sandberg said -- with a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth inning to lift the Phillies to a 6-5 win over the Houston Astros at Citizens Bank Park on Thursday night (see Instant Replay).

Howard’s 18th homer of the season and team-record 13th grand slam came with two outs in the inning against lefty Tony Sipp. It capped a five-run rally, got emergency starter Sean O’Sullivan off the hook as he was staring at a loss, and gave the Phillies a three-game sweep of the Astros.

“Howie comes through huge like that and it’s a happy clubhouse at the end of the night,” said O’Sullivan, who earlier in the day was summoned from Toledo, Ohio, where he was with the Triple A Lehigh Valley club, to make the start after Roberto Hernandez was traded to the Dodgers (see story). “At the end of the day, all that matters is that we got the W.”

The clubhouse wasn’t the only happy place.

In the seats, 26,609 fans were also pretty happy when Howard connected off Sipp. They pushed Howard around the bases with a standing ovation then lured him from the dugout with a curtain call, quite a different scene than the boos Howard heard when he was struggling in June and landed on Sandberg’s bench for three days.

“It is what it is,” Howard said of the polar opposite reactions. “I mean, it’s unfortunate. I’ll be honest with you, it’s unfortunate that’s what happens. But I’ll go out there and continue to play. I understand what it takes to play the game.”

As Howard reached home plate after his grand slam, he pointed toward the stands.

“I was pointing at my family,” he said. “It wasn’t an I-showed-you.”

Howard was hitless in his first three at-bats with a pair of strikeouts against Houston starter Collin McHugh, who pitched seven innings of one-run ball.

One at-bat turned his and the Phillies’ night around.

“I understand it wasn’t there early, but it only had to be there once,” Howard said of his swing. “It was there with me and I’ll try to build off that.”

Howard was 5 for 14 with two home runs in the series against the Astros. He had come into the series in an 0-for-14 slump that was part of a 1-for-25 road trip.

Howard’s decisive grand slam finished off an at-bat in which he saw eight pitches, laid off two two-strike breaking balls in the dirt and fouled off four pitches. Eventually, Howard powered a full-count, 93 mph fastball over the wall just to the left of center field.

“He was real aggressive (in that at-bat),” Sandberg said. “He had really good swings. It looked like he wanted to do damage. That was a battling at-bat for him. He actually laid off some breaking balls down and that was the whole key, laying off of those pitches and making him come with a strike.”

Howard is just 9 for 47 (.191) in 12 games since his benching, but he does have three homers and 11 RBIs. His four RBIs on Thursday night moved him to third in the league with 71, just three behind NL leader Giancarlo Stanton.

“He’s been making better contact,” Sandberg said. “Even his outs on the road trip -- he was stinging the ball, putting the ball in play. He wasn’t quite lifting them to the gaps, but he was making a lot of contact and cutting down on his strikeouts, so that was really a step in the right direction. This series, he was able to connect on some balls and really gain a lot of confidence with the production and the hits.

“I just know he can be a big bat for us and if he gets rolling like he is he can help us sweep a series. A sweep at home, that’s pretty big for us this year. He was a big part of that.”

All of the Astros’ runs came on three home runs in the first three innings against O’Sullivan. The right-hander finished with three scoreless innings and reliever Mario Hollands added two scoreless frames to keep the game close for the Phillies’ eighth-inning rally.

O’Sullivan was summoned to Philadelphia about 1 p.m. He scurried to get on a flight and landed in Philadelphia at 5:30 p.m. He did not know he was pitching until he landed and turned on his phone. He arrived at the park at 6 p.m. and an hour later was on the mound.

O’Sullivan didn’t get the win, but, thanks to Ryan Howard, didn’t get the loss, either.

Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

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USA Today Images

Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

NEW YORK -- Aaron Judge circled the bases for the 50th time this season, breaking Mark McGwire's major league record for home runs by a rookie, and returned to the Yankees dugout to exchange handshakes, hugs and high-fives with excited teammates.

And then, he walked up the steps and back onto the field.

Embarrassed by the attention, he managed four short waves with his right hand before heading back to the bench just three seconds later.

"They kind of told me: `You got to go out there. You got to go out there,'" he would later recall. "First curtain call. I hope it was a good one."

Judge had his second straight two-homer game in an 11-3 rout of Kansas City on Monday. On an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, the Yankees won for the 16th time in 22 games during a playoff push that earned no worse than a wild card.

The 6-foot-7, 25-year-old slugger tied McGwire's 1987 mark with a two-run drive to right-center off Jakob Junis (8-3) in the third inning that put New York ahead 3-0, driving a 93 mph high fastball 389 feet about a half-dozen rows into the right field seats (see full recap).

Russell makes food run, Cubs beat Cards to near clinch
ST. LOUIS -- Say cheese!

Addison Russell and the Chicago Cubs were all smiles after moving within a victory of another division title Monday night.

Russell hit a three-run double in the first inning, then made a food run for a fan in enemy territory while the Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 10-2. Chicago can wrap up the division with a win Tuesday against the Cardinals or a loss by Milwaukee against Cincinnati.

Russell helped the Cubs get to starter Luke Weaver (7-2) early, then made some friends out of rival fans. After diving into the stands chasing a foul ball down the third-base line and spilling a man's tray of chips, Russell emerged from the dugout a few innings later with a plate of nachos and delivered it to the fan. Russell stopped to take a selfie before heading back to play shortstop.

"That was pretty entertaining," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said (see full recap).

Donaldson, Blue Jays stop Red Sox winning streak at 6
BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox would like to get the AL East wrapped up quickly so they can start resting some banged-up players.

Josh Donaldson homered and drove in three runs, powering the Toronto Blue Jays past the first-place Red Sox 6-4 on Monday night.

Boston's six-game winning streak was snapped and its magic number to clinch a second straight division title remained at three. The Red Sox lead the second-place New York Yankees, who beat Kansas City earlier in the day, by four games with six remaining.

But the most important thing for the Red Sox was the loss of two key players to injuries. For how long? They don't know yet.

Eduardo Nunez and Mookie Betts both left the game early. Nunez aggravated a right knee injury that sidelined him for 13 games, and Betts came out with pain in his left wrist (see full recap).

Rangers fall to Astros, wild-card hopes fading
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Marwin Gonzalez had four hits and three RBIs as the AL West champion Houston Astros beat Texas 11-2 on Monday night, putting the Rangers on the brink of elimination in the wild-card race.

Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, the American League leader with 199 hits and a .348 batting average, left in the eighth inning after he was hit by a 95 mph fastball. The team said X-rays were negative and Altuve had a bruised forearm.

Gonzalez had two hits and scored twice in an eight-run fourth, including a two-run single that chased starter Andrew Cashner (10-11). Gonzalez later hit his 23rd homer, a solo shot in the sixth.

Collin McHugh (4-2) struck out six while throwing 112 pitches in five innings. The right-hander is 15-0 with a 2.94 ERA in 19 starts in September or October during his four seasons with the Astros (see full recap).

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

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Before beginning a season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeouts Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re a left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year," (see story)

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five [reliable] guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”