Ryan Howard sits; future with team in serious question

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Ryan Howard sits; future with team in serious question

Slumping Ryan Howard was not in the Phillies’ starting lineup against a left-handed pitcher for the second time in six post-all-star break games on Wednesday night, and his future with the team is in serious question.

Manager Ryne Sandberg would not use the word “platoon,” but that’s exactly what his actions suggest.

“As far as the lineup, that will be a day-to-day thing,” Sandberg said before the game.

The manager made it clear he would not let Howard’s huge contract dictate playing time.

“It's about wins and losses out here,” Sandberg said. “When the game starts, it's about winning the game and being productive and chipping in and doing the part and doing something to help win a game. If that means playing somebody else there and there's production right away -- that's trying to win a baseball game.”

Darin Ruf, recalled from Triple A on Tuesday, started at first base for the Phillies against Giants’ lefty Madison Bumgarner. Clearly, the team was prepping him to get some time at first as he played four of his last five games at Triple A at that position.

“I’m interested to see what he can do,” Sandberg said of Ruf. “I know what [Howard] can do. I've seen him for 100 games. I know what he can do. I think it's important to see what a guy like Darin Ruf can do also going forward.”

Over the first 100 games of the season, Howard, 34, has hit .224 with 15 homers, 57 RBIs and 118 strikeouts in 371 at-bats. Howard’s OPS, a dreadful .682, ranks 126th out of 162 qualifying major-league hitters. His OPS ranks 21st out of 23 qualifying major-league first basemen.

Over his last 25 games, Howard is hitting just .168 (16 for 95) with a .269 on-base percentage and a .221 slugging percentage. He has just three extra-base hits in that span, two doubles and a home run that came with the Phils ahead, 7-1, late in a game at Milwaukee.

Sandberg was careful not to disparage Howard, but he sounded very much like a man who was shopping for a first baseman. Prospect Maikel Franco could get a look later in the season.

Sandberg denied that he was looking for Howard’s replacement.

“But I think it's also important to see and gauge other players to see where they're at,” he said.

Howard is signed for at least two more years. Why would Sandberg want to gauge other players if Howard’s future with the team wasn’t in serious question?

Phillies officials have spent a lot of time discussing ways to retool their disappointing team in recent weeks. Trades are on the way and there could be several before next week’s non-waiver trade deadline.

Multiple sources say the team has also discussed moving on without Howard. The team has floated his name in trade talks but Howard is owed the remainder of $25 million for this season and $60 million over the next two seasons. No team is interested in taking on that amount of money -- or even part of it because the Phils know they’d have to eat a large portion of Howard’s salary -- for a declining player.

The logical next step is to release Howard. Sources say team officials have discussed the possibility of paying off Howard and moving on without him after the season.

If Howard were let go, he would likely hook on with another team.

At times, Howard has looked like a player who would benefit from a change of scenery. He was asked about that on Thursday and said he was not interested in moving, that he wanted to press on and try to improve with the Phillies, the team he won a World Series with in 2008 and earned the NL MVP award in 2006.

“I’m not thinking about that,” Howard said. “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Me personally, I think the easiest thing to do when times get hard or don’t go your way is quit. I think it really shows the kind of character you have -- and again, I’m not talking about anybody in this clubhouse, I’m just talking in general -- but when times get hard, the easiest thing to do is quit or try to give up or whatever. For me personally, you work through it. It’s a character building kind of thing and you try to work through it. And I think once you do work through it you become that much stronger.”

Other than to direct inquiries about the lineup to Sandberg, Howard did not duck any questions as he spoke to reporters for nearly 10 minutes late Wednesday afternoon.

The two-time NL home run king and three-time RBI champ said he was disappointed in his season.

“It’s been a disappointing year for me, period,” he said. “Things haven’t necessarily shaped up the way I’ve wanted them to, coming back after basically not playing for the last two years, trying to make it through a full season. There have been a lot of highs and lows. A lot of frustration. There’s frustration from the fans, frustration period. I have my own frustrations as well.

“You know, you try to stay positive. I know people are going to put a lot on either how much money I make, or what I’m doing on the field, this or that or whatever, but at the end if the day, you go out there and try, you try to do what you can. I’m really just trying to get back in the flow of things, trying new things, lowering my hands. Trying to get back into the flow of everything. It is what it is right now. You just try to continue to work. It’s all you can do.”

Howard said he used to become engulfed by expectations. Now, he simply plays the game.

“You guys have been around me long enough to know I kind of wear my heart on my sleeve and everything and I don’t carry that burden around anymore,” he said. “Sometimes you just want to please everybody and you can’t.

“You know, sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s on a baseball field, that’s if you change oil, that’s whatever you do. I’m sure everybody in here has good days and they have bad days. We’re all human and I think people forget that.”

Howard was asked if this season was the low point of his career. He refused to go there.

“This is baseball,” he said. “I know some people might misconstrue this comment, but baseball is a game. Yeah, I get paid a lot of money to play it, but it's a game. You go out and see little kids doing it, because it's a game. You have to keep things in perspective.”

And that is clearly what Howard is doing.

“I have a beautiful wife, a son, a baby on the way,” he said. “You have to take a look at life and have to look at it for what it is. I love playing baseball, and I want to be the best that I can be and compete on a regular basis.

“As far as my career is concerned, you have good years and you have off years. The year isn't over yet. You guys have seen me get on hot streaks where I've hit 10, 11 home runs in a month. If I were to go on and have a great August and September, all of the sudden you're talking about 35 home runs and over 100 RBIs, then we can go back to this conversation. Until the season is over, this team can still do some good things. We just have to pull it together and make it happen."

The question remains: Will it happen with Howard on the roster or with him gone?

The big man’s future with the team is very much in question.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Crucial night for struggling Jake Thompson

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Crucial night for struggling Jake Thompson

Phillies (60-70) vs. Nationals (75-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

After salvaging the weekend series at Citi Field against the Mets with a win Sunday, the Phillies move on to face the NL East-leading Nationals for three games at home. 

Let's take a look at the series opener:

1. East Coast bias
The Phillies' series against the Mets was the first of five straight series against division opponents. The Phils have a total of 16 straight games vs. NL East teams through Sept. 12.

They host the Nationals and Braves this week, then have three in Miami and four in D.C. next week. 

Of the 32 remaining games on the Phillies' schedule, only six are against teams outside the NL East. The Pirates come to town for four games Sept. 12-16 and the White Sox are at Citizens Bank Park for a two-game series Sept. 20-21.

Overall, the Phillies have mostly held their own against the NL East this season, going 23-27. They're 8-5 against the Braves, 6-7 vs. the Marlins, 5-7 vs. the Mets and 4-8 vs. the Nationals. 

Despite trailing the Marlins by seven games, the Phils' division record is one game better.

2. Important night for Thompson
All eyes will be on Jake Thompson Monday night in his fifth major-league start. The first four have been disastrous, with Thompson going 1-3 with a 9.78 ERA. He's allowed 35 baserunners and 21 runs in 19⅓ innings. He's walked 13 and struck out 13.

A consistent theme in Thompson's first four starts has been an inability to get hitters out with men on base. His opponents have a .386 on-base percentage, three homers, two doubles and a triple in 45 plate appearances with men on base. Thompson just hasn't been able to throw strike one out of the stretch.

After Thompson's last start, Phils manager Pete Mackanin said that he'd talk with GM Matt Klentak about the plan the rest of the season for Thompson. Nobody wants to see the 22-year-old pitching prospect go out there and get shelled every fifth day. It could do some long-term damage to his confidence. Hitters and pitchers are different in that way. A 22-year-old position player can come up and try to correct his mistakes on a nightly basis. A 22-year-old pitcher who comes up and struggles has to sit and think about it for four nights before having an opportunity to bounce back.

The Nationals are another tough offense so this could be another short night for Thompson. Washington is second in the NL in home runs and in the top-four in runs, walks, OBP and slugging percentage. And the Nats have been hot in August, hitting .287 with an .817 OPS as a team.

3. Underrated Roark
The Phillies face 29-year-old Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark, who's had an excellent season, going 13-7 with a 2.99 ERA in 168⅓ innings.

Roark had a solid year in 2014, going 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.09 WHIP, but was moved to the bullpen last season when the Nats lengthened their rotation by signing Max Scherzer. Roark, perhaps undeservedly so, was the odd man out. But after doing what he's done this season, he won't be demoted again any time soon.

Roark has shut the Phillies down three times this season, going seven innings in all three starts and allowing no runs in two of them. Roark is actually tied for the MLB lead with Jake Arrieta with seven games of seven-plus innings and no runs. 

Roark has approached the Phillies differently each time he's faced them this season. In the first start, he threw a ton of sinkers and mixed in curveballs and changeups. In the next start, he tripled his usage of the slider and threw fewer sinkers. In the third start, he doubled the frequency of four-seam fastballs. 

His heater averages about 93 mph.

4. Harper heating up
Bryce Harper broke out last year and won an MVP, then hit to start this season before going into a lengthy slump. His numbers are still nowhere near where they were at this time in 2015, but he is finally on a hot streak.

Over his last 20 games dating back to July 31, Harper has hit .342/.433/.579 with seven doubles, a triple, three homers and 18 RBIs. On the year, he's hitting .254/.387/.471 with 23 homers and 74 RBIs. He had 81 extra-base hits last season and has 43 this season.

Harper is still being pitched around. He has 92 walks and 89 strikeouts. He leads the majors with 16 intentional walks. 

He's destroyed the Phillies the last two seasons, hitting .341 with 11 homers, 24 RBIs, 24 walks and 24 strikeouts in 27 games.

5. This and that
• Cesar Hernandez has hit .345 with a .417 on-base percentage over his last 230 plate appearances, but also has a .478 slugging percentage over that span. He's given the Phillies pretty much everything from an offensive perspective for more than two months.

• It's incredible that Hector Neris has made a National League-leading 65 appearances this season, 31 with the Phillies leading by between 1-3 runs, and has just two blown saves. (Keep in mind a pitcher is given a blown save even if he appears earlier than the ninth inning. Setup men often have a handful or more.)

• Neris has 84 strikeouts. Based on his current pace, he's projected to finish with 105, which would be second-most ever by a Phillies reliever. Dick Selma had 153 in 1970, albeit in about 50 more innings than Neris will finish with.

• Daniel Murphy does not stop. He's hitting .343/.387/.607 in his first year with the Nats with 37 doubles, 25 homers and 98 RBIs. 

Tales of Carlos Ruiz’s generosity still coming out of Phillies' clubhouse

Tales of Carlos Ruiz’s generosity still coming out of Phillies' clubhouse

NEW YORK — A.J. Ellis started (and starred in) his first game for the Phillies on Sunday afternoon (see game recap).
 
Carlos Ruiz has already been in the Dodgers’ lineup.
 
Initial reactions to the swap of backup catchers on Thursday has subsided, but there are still anecdotes worth sharing as it pertains to Ruiz’s impact in the Phillies’ clubhouse.
 
Here are a couple, compliments of Maikel Franco and Freddy Galvis.
 
According to Franco, Ruiz viewed it as his responsibility to help young Latin players learn the ropes in the big leagues.
 
When Franco, a native of the Dominican Republic, came to the big leagues for the first time two years ago, Ruiz, from Panama, immediately reached out to him. Franco was just 22. Ruiz was 35 and had eight major-league seasons on his résumé and a World Series ring on his finger.
 
The Phillies were on a road trip and Ruiz told Franco to meet him in the hotel lobby one morning. They got in a cab and ended up at a stylish mall where Ruiz proceeded to purchase Franco some road attire — a suit, some nice shirts and a couple of ties.
 
“It was a beautiful thing he did for me,” Franco said. “Chooch was so good to me. I will never forget that day.
 
“The day he got traded, I called him. He had trouble talking because he was emotional. He almost cried. That boy is different. He’s special.
 
“I still have the suit. It is even more special now.”
 
Galvis also felt the warmth of Ruiz’s generosity.
 
He unexpectedly made the big club out of spring training in 2012 as a fill-in for injured Chase Utley.
 
There’s a lot of learning in your first season in the majors. Ruiz became Galvis’ tour guide.
 
“Every time we went to a new ballpark, he made sure to go with me on the first day so I would know where the entrance was, how to get to the clubhouse, things like that,” Galvis said. “He was always looking out for you.”
 
When Galvis broke camp with the club, he told Galvis, ‘You’re in the major leagues, you have to look good.’
 
“He took me out and bought me four suits, eight shirts and eight ties,” Galvis said with wide eyes.
 
That’s better than Franco did.
 
“Well, I was the only young guy on the team at that time,” Galvis said. “Chooch was good to me. That’s why I was sad to see him go, but also happy because he has a chance to win another World Series.”
 
Galvis, from Venezuela, and Ruiz were like brothers. At the all-star break in 2015, Galvis traveled to Panama with Ruiz for a few days of R&R.
 
In January, Galvis is planning to travel back to Panama. Ruiz and his wife are expecting a child.
 
“I am going to be the godfather,” Galvis said proudly.

New York team brings home Little League World Series championship

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New York team brings home Little League World Series championship

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- As Ryan Harlost stepped to the mound on Sunday, he took it all in.

Chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A!" droned over his left shoulder as he dipped it to deliver a warm-up pitch. South Korean arms and flags waved furiously to his right. Little kids who asked for his autograph earlier in the week used makeshift sleds to slide down the hill toward most of the 22,000-plus fans who packed Lamade Stadium.

The Endwell, New York, pitcher admitted it made him uneasy. He sure didn't show it.

Harlost led New York to the Little League World Series title, striking out eight and limiting South Korea to five hits in six innings in a 2-1 victory. He scored the deciding run on a passed ball in the fourth inning.

"I was a little nervous at first in front of a lot of people but it's just another game and I felt confident going in," Harlost said.

But it was more than just another game.

Endwell snapped a five-year championship drought for U.S. teams on Little League's biggest stage and gave New York its first title since 1964. Huntington Beach, California, won in 2011 and Mid Island from Staten Island won New York's last World Series championship.

Conner Rush had the New York team's only RBI to give Endwell a lead it wouldn't relinquish in the bottom of the fourth. Harlost (2-0) scored the deciding run on a passed ball a batter later.

"I was just thinking get it in play any way you can," Rush said. "Once that happens, you never know what can happen."

For a while, it didn't look like New York hitters would be able to hit anything.

Junho Jeong (1-2) gave up two runs on four hits and struck out nine for South Korea (4-2). He was unflappable for most of the afternoon, working the outside of the plate masterfully for 3 1/3 innings of no-hit ball before Jude Abbadessa broke through in the fourth.

Waking to the plate as Endwell fans along the first base side bellowed "Juuude!" Abbadessa broke up the righty's no-hit bid with a single to center. Harlost followed with a liner to the same spot and Rush plated the go-ahead run with a hit that fell in behind the shortstop. Harlost raced home to give New York a 2-0 lead one batter later.

"It's just been amazing," Abbadessa said. "Just coming here would be amazing and then our team doing well is even more amazing. It's been fun the whole week and we're glad that it turned out this way."

Yoomin Lee homered for the Asia-Pacific champs from Seoul to halve New York's lead in the fifth. Harlost's precision and a stingy New York defense prevented further damage.

In the second, right fielder James Fellows made a running grab at the warning track to rob Sangheon Park of an extra base hit. With a runner on first an inning later, Harlost snagged a hard-hit liner at the mound, tossed to first to get the putout and escape the third unscathed.

Later in the fifth after Yoomin's blast halved the score, Abbadessa scooped up a grounder that took an awkward bounce and threw to first for final out of the inning.

"The Mid-Atlantic team is a really good defensive team," South Korean manager Heesu Ji said. "I'm really proud of my team."

Minho Choi struck out with runners on first and second to end the game.

Harlost turned toward his dugout on the first-base side but didn't make it there as his teammates rushed out to dogpile on him near the base line.

Most of New York's players had been on other teams together before. More than half of them were on the team that fell to last year's World Series runner-up Red Land in the Mid-Atlantic Region Championship, leaving them one win shy of qualifying for a trip to South Williamsport.

"It was all of our last years of Little League," Rush said. "So it's just awesome to know that we all came together to be the best team in the world."