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.

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro returns as Phillies go for sweep of Dodgers

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CSN

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro returns as Phillies go for sweep of Dodgers

After getting hit by a pitch on the hand on Tuesday night, catcher Jorge Alfaro is back in the lineup for the Phillies, who are aiming for a four-game sweep of the Dodgers.

On Wednesday, Alfaro was replaced by Andrew Knapp, who had one hit in three at-bats in a rare start.

Freddy Galvis, hitless in his last two games, is 4 for 7 with a homer and three RBIs against Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda.

For the first time in the last several weeks, cleanup hitter Rhys Hoskins is not in the spotlight for the Phillies. Instead, the attention has been on Aaron Altherr, who will try to finish an impressive series in style. Altherr, who hits fifth again on Thursday, is 5 for 11 with three homers and nine RBIs in the first three games against Los Angeles.

Odubel Herrera, who batted third last night and went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts, hits sixth. His season batting average from that spot in the order is .340. 

Here is today's lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Nick Williams, RF
4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, LF
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Jorge Alfaro, C
8. JP Crawford, 3B
9. Mark Leiter, P

Here is the Dodgers lineup: 

1. Chris Taylor, CF
2. Justin Turner, 3B
3. Cody Bellinger, 1B
4. Yasiel Puig, RF
5. Curtis Granderson, LF
6. Chase Utley, 2B
7. Yasmani Grandal, C
8. Logan Forsythe, SS
9. Kenta Maeda, P

Aaron Altherr's clutch hits lead Phillies to another comeback win over MLB-best Dodgers

Aaron Altherr's clutch hits lead Phillies to another comeback win over MLB-best Dodgers

BOX SCORE

Somewhere in the basement of Citizens Bank Park sits a stash of champagne, chilled and ready to go for a celebration in the visiting clubhouse. It's only a matter of time before the Los Angeles Dodgers clinch their fifth straight National League West crown, but the Phillies would prefer it did not happen in their house.

The Phillies aren't saying that verbally.

They're saying it with their actions.

They've played some of their best and most exciting baseball of the season the last three nights in taking the first three games of a four-game series against the Dodgers. All three of the wins have been come-from-behind efforts. The Phillies set themselves up for a series sweep with a 7-5 win Wednesday night (see observations). The victory included two more big hits from Aaron Altherr and a game-ending catch by centerfielder Odubel Herrera that left you wondering how to say 'Wow!' in Spanish (see video).

Herrera burst into laughter when he was asked that question after the game.

His answer: "Wow!"

Altherr has delivered several Wow! moments in this series. There was his decisive grand slam against Clayton Kershaw in the opener, another home run in Tuesday night's win and four more RBIs on Wednesday night.

Altherr hit a game-tying, two-run home run in the seventh inning on a hanging breaking ball from Dodgers reliever Ross Stripling. Two batters later, Tommy Joseph went deep on another hanger from Stripling as the Phillies took a 5-4 lead.

The Phillies' bullpen has been excellent lately, but it struggled in this game and let leads of 2-1 and 5-4 get away.

But these Phillies aren't just playing out the string. They have young players trying to show they belong and that's creating problems for the 96-win Dodgers. After giving up the lead in the top of the eighth, the Phillies rallied for two runs in the bottom of the frame to take the lead for good. The rally featured a leadoff walk by Cesar Hernandez, a sacrifice bunt by Freddy Galvis, a Dodgers' error, an intentional walk to Rhys Hoskins to load the bases and a two-run line drive hit to right by Altherr to put the Phils ahead.

Altherr, activated less than two weeks ago after a month-long stay on the disabled list, has nine RBIs in the first three games of the series. For the season, he is hitting .281 with 19 homers and 60 RBIs in 97 games. His OPS is .890.

"I'm just seeing the ball really well now. I got my timing back," Altherr said. "It's good when those two things come together. I'm just a lot more relaxed at the plate. I'm driving the ball better.

"I think when I first came back I was probably trying to do too much. You know, just trying to make up for lost time. It wasn't working. I went back to relaxing at the plate and letting the ball come to me and putting a good swing on it."

Altherr's decisive two-run single with one out in the eighth came against right-hander Brandon Morrow. Lefty Luis Avilan started the inning and loaded the bases on an intentional walk to Hoskins one batter before Altherr came up.

"That's part of the game," Altherr said of the intentional walk. "But, obviously, you still want to prove them wrong in thinking I'm an easier out. I just wanted to do the best I could to hit the ball hard somewhere."

Jake Thompson pitched five innings, ran a high pitch count, but exited the game with a lead.

He enjoyed watching from the dugout as his teammates rallied for five runs in their final two at-bats to make it three straight against the Dodgers.

"I think it gives us a huge boost knowing who we're doing it against," Thompson said. "They didn't get that record by a fluke. That team is really, really good. I think it shows how far this team has come this year."

The Phillies are moving in the right direction. At least their record is. They were 29 games under .500 before the All-Star break. Wednesday night's win left them at 32-33 after the break and that means something to a rebuilding team that has put a premium on improvement.

"To win these three games is huge for our confidence," Altherr said. "We know we're a good team. We have a lot of talent on this team. Wins like these help us believe in ourselves even more and help us to believe we can do this in the years to come. We're definitely excited about the future."

The Phillies' three wins in this series have come with Kershaw, Yu Darvish and All-Star lefty Alex Wood on the mound for the Dodgers. Those are three pretty good pitchers. The Phils will face righty Kenta Maeda in the series finale Thursday afternoon. A sweep would be a nice accomplishment. It would ensure that the Dodgers would not pop champagne corks in Philadelphia. And it would also give the Phillies a .500 record after the All-Star break, a little sign of progress as the team's fifth straight losing season winds down.