Struggling Howard benched for two days

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Struggling Howard benched for two days

LOS ANGELES – A year and a half into his five-year, $125 million contract, Ryan Howard has been benched.

Howard, mired in an 0-for-16 slump, was held out of the Phillies' lineup Friday night.

One game is a day off.

More than one is a benching.

Manager Charlie Manuel said Howard would also sit out Saturday night’s game. The Dodgers are using left-handed pitchers in both games and Howard is hitting just .173 (13 for 75) with a .222 on-base percentage, a .293 slugging percentage and 38 strikeouts against lefties.

The benching comes one day after Howard killed a rally by grounding into a double play on a down-and-away 3-0 pitch in a 6-4 loss to the Dodgers. Later in the game, he made a defensive miscue that contributed to the Dodgers' scoring the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh.

After the game, Howard took full responsibility for the loss in an interview with reporters (see story).

Manuel informed Howard of the benching in a Friday meeting that was also attended by hitting coaches Steve Henderson and Wally Joyner.

Manuel said Howard’s benching was not punitive. It is designed to be constructive.

“They have two left-handers going in a row,” Manuel said. “Ryan will sit tomorrow, too. He’ll do hitting drills. I want to give him some time to clear his head. Right now he looks uncomfortable and he’s not seeing the ball good. We want him feeling better against left-handers.”

Manuel said Howard would return to the lineup Sunday against Dodgers right-hander Stephen Fife.

Manuel said Howard understood the reasoning for the benching.

“He’s fine with it,” Manuel said.

Howard declined comment on the matter.

“I got nothing today,” he said.

Howard, 33, is hitting .268 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 74 games this season. He has been plagued by problems with his left leg for over a year. He missed the first half of last season recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and this season is playing with a cartilage problem in his left knee that he recently said causes him pain every day. The plan for now remains to play through the issue unless it becomes debilitating.

“His average is OK,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said. “He’s struggled at times. He’s streaky, but not as streaky on the positive side as he typically is. He could carry a team at times and he hasn’t done that yet. He hasn’t performed to his capabilities.

“He’s a better player than he’s showed this year. I think his injuries have taken a toll on him. How much it has affected him mentally, I don’t know. It may be affecting him mentally a little bit.”

Howard has 3½ seasons to go on a huge five-year, $125 million contract. Amaro recently told CSNPhilly.com that he did not regret giving Howard that deal. The GM believes Howard can still be a top run producer.

Why?

“His track record, more than anything else,” Amaro said. “More than anything else, he has to get to the point where he is healthy again. Health means something to these guys mentally. It’s hard to play at 100 percent when you’re not 100 percent. He can still be a very productive player. It’s a matter of getting him back to 100 percent. He needs to get his mojo back. One works with the other.”

John Mayberry Jr. started at first base in Howard’s place Friday night.

Alec Asher's two-seamer shines in another effective outing

Alec Asher's two-seamer shines in another effective outing

NEW YORK -- Alec Asher’s two-seamer was nearly perfect against the Mets on Saturday night — even if the pitching line was attached to his name was decidedly less so.

The rookie exited after five innings with four unearned runs attached to his name — two Phillies’ throwing errors on playable ground balls will do that — but lowered his ERA to 1.66 in a 10-8 victory that was far, far closer than it needed to be.

Lost in the shuffle of the Phillies bullpen’s attempt at self-immolation was just how effective Asher’s newly-developed two-seam fastball was in the early innings against the Mets’ full lineup. The relatively slow pitch — it was sitting around 90 MPH Saturday — generated six popouts during his perfect first trip through the batting order.

“Being able to throw a pitch that’s not straight works wonders,” Asher said. “Last year, I didn’t really have success throwing the four-seam, so just adding that little bit of movement misses barrels, [generates] mishits and gave me a lot of ground balls and weak contact, which is all I can ask for.”

Opponents are batting just .182 off Asher’s two-seamer in his four starts this year, according to data from Fangraphs.com, a complete 180 from his disastrous September call-up in 2015.

In his first major league starts, Asher struggled to establish a mound presence with a four-seamer that nearly touched 95 MPH. Opponents batted .250 and got seven extra-base hits off the four seamer as Asher finished 2015 with an ugly 9.31 ERA.

The Phillies challenged Asher to generative more movement on the pitch and he returned in Spring Training with an entirely new repertoire.

So far, the effort has paid off.

“It’s outstanding. It’s been a real good pitch for him and his changeup,” manager Pete Mackanin said of Asher’s two-seamer. “He didn’t have either pitch last year, and for him to come up with it over the course of the winter and throw those pitches so effectively is huge.”

Asher relied on the changeup to escape the fifth inning — the only high-stress situation he faced all evening.

With four runs already in, a fifth runner poised on third base and a Citi Field crowd beside itself in hopes of a miracle comeback, Asher got pinch-hitter James Loney to top a low changeup out of the zone down the first base line that Tommy Joseph stopped with a dive.

“[I wanted] just to slow the game down and take it pitch by pitch,” Asher said.

Even if Saturday wound up being perhaps a bit more frantic than he would have liked to be, Asher has developed a formula for future success as he prepares for his final start of the season next Friday — also against the Mets — and 2017.

“Just establishing the fastball, commanding both sides of the plate and changing speeds,” he said.

His two-run single in the first inning on Saturday night — his first two career RBIs and, ultimately, the winning margin — was a bonus.

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Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro makes second straight start

Today's lineup: Jorge Alfaro makes second straight start

Catcher Jorge Alfaro is making his second straight start after Saturday's 10-8 win.

Alfaro, the Phillies' top catching prospect, has gone 0 for 11 with a walk in his three career starts, all coming in the last two weeks since he was called up. Alfaro was acquired in the Cole Hamels trade last July and is 1 for 13 with a walk in five games. 

The 23-year-old will catch Jake Thompson in a game that means a lot more to the Mets (1:10/CSN).

Giving Alfaro playing time allows Phillies fans the chance to get a glimpse of the future. Roman Quinn has received plentiful playing time after was called up in the mid-September and Alfaro, like Quinn, is trying to leave an impression on the Phillies' brass before spring training.

Quinn is not in the lineup on Sunday as Aaron Altherr and Cody Asche man the corner outfield spots. Freddy Galvis moved up to second in the lineup after staying in the bottom half of the lineup in recent games.

Ryan Howard will bat fifth, playing likely his final game at Citi Field with the Phillies. While he has batted just .203 in 52 career games at Citi Field, he alos has 11 home runs there after smashing 12 homers at Shea Stadium, the Mets' previous stadium.

Here's the full lineup that will oppose Robert Gsellman and the Mets.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cody Asche, LF
7. Aaron Altherr, RF
8. Jorge Alfaro, C
9. Jake Thompson, P

For more on today's game, check out Steven Tydings' game notes

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