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.

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."