Phillies sweep Astros behind Ryan Howard slam

ap-phillies-howard-slam.jpg

Phillies sweep Astros behind Ryan Howard slam

BOX SCORE

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.

Phillies getting good reports on catching prospect Jorge Alfaro

Phillies getting good reports on catching prospect Jorge Alfaro

Jorge Alfaro, one of the Phillies' most highly regarded prospects, is off to a big start at Triple A Lehigh Valley.
 
He entered Wednesday night's game hitting .377 (23 for 61) with a 1.003 OPS in his first 15 games. He had a double, two triples, three homers and 10 RBIs. Team officials would surely like to see the strikeouts (17) come down and the walks (1) go up, but no one is complaining about the production.
 
"I just looked at his numbers," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He's doing very well — knocking the cover off the ball."
 
Alfaro, 23, is widely considered the Phillies' catcher of the future. He's an athletic talent with huge upside. Many scouts believe he could be an All-Star if he puts it all together.
 
Defense is the area where Alfaro needs the most work. Yes, he's got a "howitzer" for an arm, as Mackanin called it, so that doesn't need much work. But there's a lot more to catching than throwing. There's game-calling, receiving and blocking.
 
Alfaro made a cameo with the big club last September and did not impress club officials with his receiving or blocking. Instructors focused on improving those areas in spring training, and Mackanin reports that Alfaro has shown progress in the early season.
 
"We get a complete game report on what everyone does offensively and defensively," Mackanin said. "Apparently he looks very good defensively.
 
"He had some issues defensively. He wasn't getting down enough and he worked on that all spring. He's a big guy and it's a little more difficult for a big guy to get low.
 
"And we wanted him to just be a little more quiet behind the plate, less movement. He had a tendency to be moving while the pitcher was getting ready to pitch. We just want a guy sitting back there nice and quiet with a good target. That's might seem pretty elementary, but if you're not concentrating on doing that you might not realize the importance of it.
 
"He's doing well blocking balls. He's doing everything well right now and hitting on top of it, so that's a nice sign."

Clay Buchholz optimistic he can still pitch in 2017 after surgery

Clay Buchholz optimistic he can still pitch in 2017 after surgery

Pitcher Clay Buchholz made his first appearance in the Phillies' clubhouse Wednesday since having surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his right forearm last week.  

Many initially believed Buchholz would be out for the remainder of the season -- and he still might be -- but he expressed optimism and believes he can return to the mound in September.

"My goal right now is to let this heal," Buchholz said. "Get it well and if this team keeps playing like they're playing right now, we'll be playing in September, October, so that's my goal."

Buchholz said he wasn't feeling 100 percent leading up to the April 11 game against the New York Mets when manager Pete Mackanin pulled him in the third inning. 

"I told [general manager Matt Klentak] that I was sorry, and the guys in here," Buchholz said. "I was brought here for a reason. I wanted to pitch, I wanted to be good. I guess it's a good thing we have a good farm system here because they've been able to step up and fill in."

Buchholz had a similar issue with the Boston Red Sox in July 2015 and missed the rest of the season. 

In his two starts with the Phillies, Buchholz allowed 10 runs and 19 baserunners over just 7 1/3 innings. 
 
Buchholz, 32, will become a free agent at the end of the season. Given his age and the possibility that he won't return this season, the injury could significantly affect his value heading into the offseason. He's the second-highest paid player on the Phillies' roster at $13.5 million

But Buchholz wants to build the strength in his forearm and continue to pitch in MLB following this season.

"There's a lot of guys that come back," Buchholz said. "I have a lot of buddies that played this game that have come back from major surgeries and played for eight or nine more years. It's all about once I do get healthy, being prepared and building a strong foundation around my muscles."