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August 18, 2016

Franco, Howard power Phils to win over Dodgers

After collecting their first sweep in more than a month over the weekend against the Colorado Rockies, the Phillies were nine outs away by following it up by getting swept by Chase Utley and the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night.

Maikel Franco prevented that from happening.

The slumbering sophomore slugger, who entered the night hitting just .186 since the All-Star break, jumped on a high fastball from Dodgers left-hander Grant Dayton and sent it into the shrubbery beyond the fence in center field, leading the Phillies from behind to a 5-4 victory.

"After all the home runs they hit against us, we finally beat them with a home run," manager Pete Mackanin said. "That was huge. Franco came up big. He really hit that ball well."

The Phillies had trailed 3-0 three batters into the game after Utley led off with a single and scored with rookie Corey Seager after Justin Turner connected on a three-run home run off Jerad Eickhoff, one of the nine home runs the Dodgers hit in the series.

The Phils pitching staff will get a break on Friday, as Utley and the Dodgers will spend Friday, the one-year anniversary of the trade that sent the iconic second baseman to Los Angeles, in Cincinnati, the second stop on their East Coast trip.

But after Utley’s final hit at Citizens Bank Park in 2016 and before Franco’s game-winning home run, Ryan Howard quietly had an impact on the game, too. In the fourth inning, Howard homered for the third time in his last four starts.

"He has been swinging the bat as well as well I’ve seen him in a long time," Mackanin said.

While Utley, whom Howard robbed of a base hit in the seventh inning, moves on, Howard will be back in South Philly on Friday night, outfitted in the only big league uniform he’s ever worn as a player, as the Phillies continue their longest homestand since the All-Star break against his hometown St. Louis Cardinals.

Is there a chance that Howard, like Utley, will have the opportunity to play meaningful baseball in a pennant race next month?

Howard has certainly put himself into a position where teams looking for offense – even if it’s in the form of a Matt Stairs, power-off-the-bench type – can’t help but take notice. Howard didn’t get any extended ovations, but he did match Utley’s home run output with three in the series.

Howard has homered five times in nine games this month. 

But that’s a small sample size. How about since the All-Star break?  

He’s hit .357 with seven home runs in 20 games since the break. Among players with at least 50 plate appearances, Howard's .774 slugging percentage in the second half is the best in baseball, his 1.155 OPS ranks fourth, behind Joey Votto, J.D. Martinez, and Ryan Braun.

But let's go back even further into the Phillies schedule. 

Howard began to turn around what began as a woeful season (remember he hit .101 in May) before the break, too. In his last 92 plate appearances since June 22, a span of just under two months, Howard has hit .314 with a .359 on-base percentage, a .686 slugging percentage, nine home runs, and five doubles in 30 games.

How the heck did that happen, given where he was at in the beginning of June, hitting .150 with nine home runs and a .559 OPS through his first 52 games of the season, when he was benched in favor of rookie Tommy Joseph?

"He looks like he’s seeing the ball a lot better," Mackanin said. "He’s made some adjustments to his swing path. He looks more spread out than he has been, reverting back to the way he used to hit. He’s made a lot of adjustments and he’s been working hard to get there. 

He's also cut down his strikeouts, if only slightly, which has made a difference. After striking out 56 times in his first 169 plate appearances (32 percent of the time), Howard has struck out 22 times in his last 92 plate appearances (24 percent).

"Knock on wood, he’s not swinging at a lot of pitches and expanding the strike zone like we’ve seen him do," Mackanin said. "It’s just great to see. He’s going to get more playing time because of it."

Could that playing time come with another team?

Utley received a warm reception in his homecoming this week, and it was much deserved. Perhaps Howard has played well enough to deserve a chance to leave Philadelphia in the next couple weeks, prior to the August 31 deadline, with his own celebrated exit and an opportunity to see if he can continue his magic next month in games that matter.

With the complexity of waiver wire trades, and the money Howard is owed after the season ($10 million buyout), it's not the simplest of roster transactions. But the fact that it's even remotely possible sounds crazy given where Howard and the Phillies were just two months ago.

"I got a great piece of advice from a future Hall of Famer named Jim Thome, he said, you know, stay even-keeled, don’t get too high and don’t get too low," said Howard, who has had to hear everything from how he should be benched or released and had to duck beer bottles heaved at him in 2016, his last in a Phillies uniform. "That’s what this game is. Some days it happens, some days it doesn’t. That’s something that’s always stuck with me.

"I know what I’m capable of doing. It’s just trying to take advantage of whatever the opportunities are, what the situation is at the time, and just trying to deal with whatever it is and trying to stay positive the entire time."

When Dodgers pinch hitter Rob Segedin couldn't check his swing on a filthy 83-MPH slider, Jerad Eickhoff punched his fist through the air before he walked back to the dugout. 

Eickhoff's enthusiasm came for a number of reasons, but mainly because of how the game had started and the struggles Phillies starters have endured this month.

"From where it started and having to battle and just try to keep us in the game any way possible, that's all I was worried about," Eickhoff said. "One-run game or two-run game, just try to keep it right there."

And that's exactly what Eickhoff, the most dependable of the Phillies young starters in 2016, was able to do. He rebounded from the 3-0 deficit he had before recording an out to turn over a 4-3 deficit to the bullpen (and Maikel Franco) in the seventh inning.

By giving the Phillies six innings, Eickhoff prevented his pitching staff from making history. The Phillies entered the night having gone eight straight games with a starting pitcher lasting fewer than six innings. 

Instead of breaking that infamous mark, the 2016 Phillies pitching staff ended up tying the 1999 team for most consecutive starts of fewer than six innings. 

The Phillies staff still has to break another streak: Thursday marked the 20th consecutive game a Phillies starter failed to pitch at least seven innings.

  Cesar Hernandez was scratched from the starting lineup a half-hour before the start of Thursday's game. Hernandez fouled a ball off his right foot earlier this week, Mackanin said. The manager was hopeful his starting second baseman would be back on Friday. Hernandez is hitting .341 with a .458 OBP in 22 games since moving into the leadoff spot on July 24.

  • Maikel Franco's game-winning home run gave him his 19th go-ahead RBI this year and his 11th game-winning RBI of the season. Both lead the Phillies. Only three NL players have more game-winning RBI: Justin Turner (Dodgers), Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins), and Brandon Crawford (Giants).

  • The Phillies had to shut down two sections of seats on the concourse level behind the right-field fence because of a problem with the scoreboard hanging above. But that didn't stop a couple of fans from scurrying after a home run ball Yasmani Grandal hit into the vacated seats in the fourth inning.