Ryan Howard gives Phillies win over Astros in 15

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Ryan Howard gives Phillies win over Astros in 15

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For Ryan Howard, manager Ryne Sandberg knew it was just a matter of time.

Little did Sandberg realize that Howard was going to hit his way out of a slump and then back into one before delivering the winning hit all in the same game.

Given the Phillies’ penchant for playing extra-inning games -- specifically games that last at least 14 innings -- the ebbs and flows of Howard’s season at the plate were on display during the 2-1 victory over the Houston Astros in 15 innings on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning (see Instant Replay).

“He was swinging the bat well,” Sandberg said. “I think it was just a matter of time.”

Howard homered to lead off the second inning for what appeared to be the game-winner for starting pitcher Kyle Kendrick. After retiring the first 10 he faced and recording 13 outs on ground balls, Kendrick finally allowed a run in the seventh inning.

By that point, though, the Phillies and Astros weren’t even halfway finished. The Phils’ bullpen held the Astros scoreless for eight innings while the team waited for Howard to come through again, barely squeaking a single through the infield shift to send the winning run home from second base with two outs.

Actually, it wasn’t as easy as it sounded.

Howard grounded into a rally-killing double play in the sixth inning before an encore performance in the eighth when the Phils had two on and one out. He was hit by a pitch in the 11th inning and was called out on strikes with the winning run on base in the 13th.

But in the 15th inning, with Grady Sizemore on first and two outs, Astros reliever Jake Buchanan was ordered to intentionally walk Chase Utley to bring up Howard. Even though Howard drove in the Phillies’ lone run in 35 innings to that point, and hit his 17th homer of the season, the Astros saw an escape route through the cleanup hitter.

Not this time.

“You want to go up there with a little chip on your shoulder,” Howard said about the Astros’ decision to walk Utley in order to face him. “I thought the at-bat before was a little up. Two strikes, probably have to go after it a little bit. I was just trying to stay with my approach. So when they walked Chase, I wanted to get it done. I wanted to go out there and get it done.”

Though he went into the game with one hit in his previous 25 at-bats and was batting just .215, Sandberg hasn’t moved Howard out of the cleanup spot. In fact, only one other player in baseball (Casey McGehee) has more plate appearances in the cleanup spot than Howard this season. In other words, the Phillies’ offense is going to live or die with Howard in the heart of the order this season.

Actually, that fact is alright with Howard, too. He even pointed out his track record at the plate, excluding the parts when he has fought debilitating injuries the last two seasons.

“You know, I think you guys forget what I’ve done. You guys look at what’s going on right now. People forget what I’ve done,” said the one-time NL MVP, NLCS MVP, Rookie of the Year and three-time All-Star. “[Sandberg] has played the game. He knows. He knows the ups and downs of the game and he knows you’re going to have good days and bad days.

“For me, I’m just going to go out there and grind it out. I’m going to hit balls that are unfortunately going to go into the shift and balls back up the middle that guys are going to make plays on. All you can try to do is hit it hard and hopefully hit it where they’re not.”

Certainly Howard hit the ball hard against the Astros, but only his solo homer in the second landed where they were not. Regardless, there is still time for Howard to make his stat line look presentable. He’s notorious for getting hot in the final months of the season.

“He was hitting the ball hard,” Sandberg said of his cleanup hitter. “And driving in the winning run, that's a big confidence booster.”

Howard agrees.

“It feels good,” he said. “I’ve hit balls hard, over stretches. I don’t make any excuses. I come in every day and try to be positive and all you can do is hit the ball hard. What happens after it leaves the bat, it’s out of your control.”

As an extra bonus, it is actually hitting the bat for a change, too.

Next, right-hander David Buchanan (5-5, 4.40) will join the Phillies from Triple A Lehigh Valley to take Cliff Lee’s spot in the rotation on Wednesday night. To make room for Buchanan on the roster, the Phillies sent Hector Neris back to Triple A.

Neris made his major-league debut with a scoreless 15th inning on Tuesday night and earned the win thanks to Howard’s single.

The Astros will send righty Brad Peacock (3-7, 4.93) to the mound to face the Phillies.

Best of MLB: Dodgers lose injured Clayton Kershaw, beat Braves in 10 innings

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Best of MLB: Dodgers lose injured Clayton Kershaw, beat Braves in 10 innings

LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw left after two innings with a back injury, but the Los Angeles Dodgers overcame a blown save by Kenley Jansen to beat the Atlanta Braves 5-4 on Sunday on Logan Forsythe's bases-loaded single in the 10th.

Kershaw, unbeaten in 15 consecutive starts, left after 21 pitches because of right low back tightness.

Jansen entered with a 3-1 lead and got the final out of the eighth, but gave up a three-run homer to Matt Adams in the ninth, tying the game at 4-all.

Forsythe singled up the middle after Cody Bellinger was intentionally walked by Jim Johnson (6-2) to load the bases.

Brandon Morrow (3-0) got the win after retiring the side in the top of the 10th.

Austin Barnes hit a three-run homer in the fourth for the Dodgers (see full recap).

Britton gets AL consecutive saves record as Orioles beat Astros
BALTIMORE -- Zach Britton set an American League record by converting his 55th consecutive save opportunity, blanking the Houston Astros in the ninth inning the seal the Baltimore Orioles' 9-7 victory on Sunday.

Britton struck out the first two batters and issued a walk before pinch-hitter George Springer bounced into a force play to end it.

Britton broke the AL mark held by Tom Gordon, who notched 54 straight saves with Boston from 1998-99. Britton started his run on Oct. 1, 2015, added 47 in a row last season and is 6 for 6 this year.

The major league record of 84 is held by Eric Gagne of the Dodgers from 2002-04. Saves became an official statistic in 1969.

Britton earned his fifth save on April 14 and endured two months on the disabled list with a strained left forearm before returning on July 5 (see full recap).

Nationals beat D-backs but lose Strasburg to injury
PHOENIX -- Stephen Strasburg left after struggling with his control in the second inning, and the Washington Nationals wrapped up a successful nine-game trip with a 6-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday.

There was no word from the Nationals during the game explaining the standout right-hander's departure.

Strasburg, 10-3 with a 3.31 ERA entering the game, uncharacteristically walked the No. 8 and No. 9 batters in the second inning before departing with a 5-0 lead. He threw 51 pitches, 29 strikes.

Brian Goodwin's leadoff homer ignited a four-run first inning off Robbie Ray (9-5), who lasted five innings, allowing five runs.

Wilmer Difo hit his second home run of the season off reliever T.J. McFarland in the seventh.

Joe Blanton (1-2) got two outs and earned the win.

The NL East-leading Nationals took two of three in Arizona to go 7-2 on the trip (see full recap).

Yankees win 1st series in 6 weeks, beat Mariners
SEATTLE -- The New York Yankees won a series for the first time in six weeks when Aroldis Chapman struck out Ben Gamel with a runner on to preserve a 6-4 victory over Seattle on Sunday, their third win in four games against the Mariners this weekend.

The Yankees had been 0-8-2 in series since sweeping Baltimore on June 9-11. New York had lost 13 straight games with a chance to win a series.

After Seattle overcame a 3-0 deficit with a four-run fourth inning against Caleb Smith, Brett Gardner hit a tying, bases-loaded single in the sixth and Clint Frazier followed with a two-run double off former Yankee James Pazos (2-3).

Didi Gregorius had his first career multihomer game with solo shots in the second and fourth innings for New York, both on 0-1 pitches from Yovani Gallardo. Gregorius has 14 home runs.

Gardner opened the game with his 17th home run.

A converted starter pitching on consecutive days for the first time in big league career, Chad Green (1-0) struck out three in 2 1/3 perfect innings. Dellin Betances and David Robertson each threw a hitless inning, and Chapman had another shaky finish for his 11th save (see full recap).

Nationals' GCL affiliate pitch no-hitter in both games of doubleheader
JUPITER, Fla. -- The Washington Nationals' rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate pitched seven-inning no-hitters in both ends of a doubleheader Sunday.

Facing the GCL Marlins at the teams' shared spring training home, right-handed prospect Joan Baez opened the first game with six innings, allowing a walk and striking out seven. Jose Jimenez walked one in the seventh to close a 4-0 victory.

Baez is among the organization's top pitching prospects. He improved to 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA in four appearances (three starts) with the GCL Nationals.

In the second game, Jared Johnson walked one in four innings, and Gilberto Chu closed with three perfect innings in a 1-0 win. It was only the second pro start for Johnson, a 17th-round draft pick last month from Palm Beach State Junior College.

They were the first no-hitters in the GCL this season.

Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

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Though they still have the worst record in the majors by 3½ games, the 34-62 Phillies aren't playing like the worst team in baseball right now.

Not from an offensive standpoint, not from a starting pitching standpoint, not from a bullpen standpoint.

The Phils' offense stayed hot Sunday afternoon in a 6-3 win over the Brewers, their fourth win in five games and sixth in the last 10 (see Instant Replay).

Nick Williams homered again, Howie Kendrick had a very Howie Kendrick-like at-bat with the bases loaded, Jerad Eickhoff spun a quality start and the trio of Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit and Luis Garcia sealed the win.

The Phillies have scored at least five runs in seven straight games, which is something none of their recent division-winning teams did in a single season. It's their longest such streak since May 31-June 7, 2005.

Their starting pitchers have allowed three runs or less in six of the last eight games.

And the Phils' bullpen has the lowest ERA in the majors since June 26 at 2.19.

A lot of things are clicking right now for a team that probably can't play worse than it did in the first half. The Phils' record remains hideous, but there are actually four teams with worse run differentials: the Reds, Blue Jays, Giants and Padres.

"My first year here as a coach was '09, and in no way am I comparing ourselves to that team, but it was reminiscent the way we've been swinging the bats of us coming back and coming from behind and catching up and beating other teams," Pete Mackanin said. "It reminds me to a certain degree."

For much of the season, Mackanin has walked into the Phillies' media room after a loss and said that his hitters aren't living up to their standard. For much of the season, the Phillies have made quick outs and life easy for the opposing pitcher. 

But with Kendrick and Cesar Hernandez back from the DL, with Odubel Herrera hitting .331 since June 1, with Maikel Franco walking as much as he's struck out the last 35 games, and with Williams' power and energy rubbing off on the rest of the team, many different Phillies are playing like they have something to prove.

"Everybody is playing for a job next year," Mackanin said. "Everybody is playing to be part of our future and I think the guys are competing among themselves. It's good to see. Everybody's more aggressive. They're into the games."

The energy added by Williams' arrival on June 30 has been impossible to ignore, though it's kind of a chicken-or-egg thing. Is there added energy because he and so many other guys started hitting, or are they hitting because there's a more positive vibe in the clubhouse and dugout?

"I like to do whatever I can to start the momentum or get guys going," Williams said. "If I do something exciting, they're like, 'Oh, he's playing hard.' But everyone's been hitting and everyone's been just playing the game right and just doing all the little things and that's how we've been able to come out with some victories.

"In close spots with the hitting, we've been able to knock a lot of guys in. It's just that hitting's contagious. I always say when one guy does it, why can't the next? That's how I think of it."

The biggest spot in Sunday's game came with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth inning. With the game tied, the Brewers switched pitchers and Kendrick quickly found himself down 0-2 before singling up the middle to score two runs.

Kendrick has missed 60 games this season and it's been frustrating for him because he's been so locked-in when he's played. After picking up two more hits Sunday, he's up to .353 with an .873 OPS. His numbers are rarely sexy because he averages about 10 home runs per season, but a versatile, perennial .290 hitter has value. It's why the Phillies' offseason acquisition of Kendrick made sense and it's why he figures to have some trade value even though Sunday was just his 36th game of the year.

"Not only is he a good hitter but he plays solid defense out there," Mackanin said. "He doesn't have the greatest range but it's not bad. He's average to maybe a tick above average. 

"I'm sure there's a lot of interest in a lot of our guys, (Pat) Neshek, [Kendrick], even (Joaquin) Benoit, (Daniel) Nava. We'll wait and see."

The non-waiver trade deadline is just eight days away and general manager Matt Klentak expects there to be some movement. The Phils' two best trade chips are Kendrick and Neshek and both had productive weekends. Neshek pitched a scoreless seventh inning to lower his ERA to 1.12. He's allowed runs in just two of 43 appearances.

And Kendrick has picked up right where he left off, going 4 for 10 since returning Friday from a hamstring strain.

"If I were scouting for another organization I'd recommend him," Mackanin said of Kendrick. "I'd put an acquire (label) on him."

We'll soon see what that acquire label nets the Phillies. The return won't be huge, but trading Kendrick will allow the Phils to add another young player with upside and open a spot back up for Aaron Altherr, who could return from the DL as early as Wednesday.