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-Reds 5 things: Zach Eflin, Phillies aim for first series win since April

Phillies-Reds 5 things: Zach Eflin, Phillies aim for first series win since April

Phillies (17-30) vs. Reds (23-25)
1:35 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App.

Tommy Joseph came through as the Phillies' hero on Saturday with his second walk-off single in three days. It was just the Phillies' sixth win in their last 27 games, but the victory allows the Phillies an opportunity to take the series with the Reds.

Zach Eflin will take the hill for Sunday afternoon's start and will oppose Scott Feldman, the 'ace' for the Reds this season.

Here are five things to know for Sunday's game:

1. What a relief
It may have crept up on you, but the Phillies' bullpen is hot right now -- to the tune of 19 2/3 straight scoreless innings hot.

The Phils' relief corps came through with 3 2/3 more scoreless on Saturday to back up starter Jerad Eickhoff and give the bats a chance to walk off. After Joaquin Benoit expressed public frustration with the lack of roles in the 'pen, the team has slowly but surely found a pecking order for its back-end. With Hector Neris entrenched as closer, Benoit now serves as the primary setup man while Pat Neshek and Edubray Ramos have also been in line for high-leverage innings.

Neris has allowed just one run over 10 2/3 this month after closing last month with that back-to-back-to-back home run implosion in Los Angeles. He's back to his bread and butter -- setting up hitters with his fastball before unleashing his nasty splitter, which he used to retire Joey Votto in Saturday's ninth inning.

Benoit has seven consecutive scoreless one-inning performances. He's looking more and more like the reliever the Phillies thought they were getting when they signed him in the offseason. Neshek has five straight scoreless appearances since giving up his first runs of the season two weeks ago during the doubleheader with the Nationals. Both setup men are in line for possible trades this season and could get the Phillies something in return.

And if the rotation continues to stumble (averaging 5.38 innings per start with an ERA above 6.00 in May), the bullpen could be a backbone to keep the team respectable.

2. Needing a better effort from Eflin
One starter who is certainly struggling is Eflin, who needs to rebound after a couple poor starts.

His last two starts have been nothing short of disasters. In 10 innings, he's allowed 15 runs on 21 hits while surrendering three home runs. The appearances -- losses to the Rangers and Rockies -- account for the worst two-start stretch of his career.

Through seven starts, Eflin has an ERA of 5.36. He was coming off a string of four consecutive quality starts before this late-May swoon and had an ERA of 2.81 while averaging 6.4 innings per start.

The 6-foot-5 righty relies heavily on his sinker, so he's going to have a lot of balls put in play. However, he simply can't survive with home runs. He needs to keep the ball on the ground, especially against the slugging Reds, who have four batters with at least 10 home runs.

There's no doubt that Eflin could pitch his way out of the rotation if he can't turn things around. He's only 23 and has made just 18 MLB starts. However, pitching through his struggles in the majors is the right way to go. This is a pitcher who had a 2.81 ERA just two weeks ago and two bad starts aren't worth an overreaction.

None of his 18 career starts came against the Reds and he has not faced anyone currently on Cincy's roster.

3. The Reds' ace?
Believe or not, the Phillies don't have the worst rotation ERA in baseball. That belongs to the Reds, whose starters sport a combined 5.74 heading into Sunday's rubber match in South Philly.

In 48 games, they've allowed 53 home runs and 154 earned runs. They've walked 109 batters and have the third fewest strikeouts (185) of any staff.

So with an only OK ERA of 3.99, Scott Feldman is actually the staff ace. At 34 years old, he's played for six different teams and had middling results at each stop. For his career, he is 74-81 with a 4.38 ERA.

This season, he has a career-worst walk rate, but has limited hits and home runs to keep teams off the board. On May 7, he threw a four-hit shutout against the Giants and is coming off a six-inning, one-run start against the Indians. He struck out a season-high nine in that game.

The Phillies are more than familiar with the righty as they faced him on opening day in Cincinnati. Feldman lasted just 4 2/3 innings and gave up three runs, including home runs to both Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis. It was his only ever start against the Phillies as he's spent the majority of his career in the American League.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Joseph has been the Phillies' saving grace recently. In both games he finished with walk-off singles, he also hit a home run and he's looking more and more like the hitter that took the Phils' lineup by storm last summer.

Reds: Votto is undoubtedly one of the best hitters in baseball. The 33-year-old Canadian is 0 for 7 with a walk in this series but has a .413 OBP this season with more walks (36) than strikeouts (26).

5. This and that
• Howie Kendrick made his fourth rehab appearance on Saturday with Triple A Lehigh Valley. He went 1 for 5 and played the full game at third base.

• The Phillies have not won consecutive games since their six-game win streak concluded on April 27.

• The Phils lost their last eight series, beginning in Los Angeles against the Dodgers on April 28-30.

• The Phillies are 9-11 in one-run games. They were 28-23 in those contests last year.

Howie Kendrick makes 4th rehab appearance in Lehigh Valley

Howie Kendrick makes 4th rehab appearance in Lehigh Valley

Howie Kendrick on Saturday night made his fourth rehab appearance in Triple A during Lehigh Valley's 13-1 rout of the Louisville Bats in Allentown.

Kendrick went 1 for 5 with a run scored and three strikeouts. He also grounded into a double play and left two runners in scoring position.

It was his second rehab game playing third base. He played third during his appearance in the IronPigs' 8-4 loss Thursday to the Indianapolis Indians. He was 0 for 1 in three plate appearances with a run scored and was hit by a pitch twice (see story).

The Phillies' plan for Kendrick was to have him play a minimum four games at Lehigh Valley. He played left field in two games and third base twice. Pete Mackanin said Wednesday that Kendrick would also get a game at first base but he hasn't gotten a game at first yet.

There is a chance Kendrick could be recalled Sunday before the Phillies’ series finale against the Cincinnati Reds depending on how he feels.

Kendrick has been sidelined since April 15 with an oblique strain. In 10 games before the injury, Kendrick went 13 for 39 (.333) with five extra-base hits and four walks while exclusively playing left field.