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October 01, 2016

Howard's home run not enough to prevent Mets from celebrating in South Philly

A white bed sheet hung from the third deck of the right field bleachers with care.

It read, “Thanks Piece.” The ‘P’ was in the familiar Phillies font.

On the penultimate day of Ryan Howard’s Phillies career, the sign was both an appreciation for the former MVP’s iconic career in red pinstripes and a tantalizing reminder of how far he hit balls during his peak years several years ago.

As Howard proven during a sometimes tumultuous 2016 season, he can still rack up home runs. Howard, the former “Big Piece” of the Phillies lineup, a nicknamed coined by former manager Charlie Manuel, became was a platoon player at the start of the season and then a bench piece for a period in the summer, when he barely keeping his batting average above .150, let alone the Mendoza line.

But the home runs returned and the memories of yesteryear did, too.

On Saturday afternoon, with the sign waving to and fro on windy and damp October day, Howard ripped a two-run, game-tying home run off Bartolo Colon. The Mets were a win away from clinching a postseason spot and the Phillies, led by Howard, were going to be damned if they didn’t lay down to watch their NL East rivals celebrate on their home turf.

Howard has been a productive part-time player for the last three months. He’s hitting .263 with 15 home runs and an OPS over .900 in 53 games since June 23 and, overall, is tied with Maikel Franco for the team lead in home runs.

Among major league players with at least 300 plate appearances, only Mark Trumbo (12.9 AB/HR) has a better home run rate than Howard (13.0).

But Howard alone could not stop the Mets from celebrating. A half inning after Howard’s game-tying blast, his 25th home run of the season, James Loney ripped a two-out, two-run home run off David Hernandez and the Mets held on for a 5-3 win to clinch a playoff berth for the second straight year.

"I tried to spoil it for them today a little bit, but they got us, and you’ve got to congratulate those guys because they’re scratched and clawed and did what they needed to do," Howard said. "That’s a good ballclub."

The Mets, the NL Pennant winners in 2015, entered the afternoon with a magic number of one. They could stamp their ticket to the playoffs with either a victory over the Phillies or a loss by the St. Louis Cardinals.

Instead of waiting on someone else (the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are in St. Louis this weekend) the Mets grabbed destiny by the hand and secured not only a playoff berth, but home field for Wednesday’s Wild Card game (or for the rights to take on the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series).

"I didn’t watch," manager Pete Mackanin said. "I just turned around and left. I don’t want to watch that."

But perhaps it could be a learning moment for some of the young Phillies, some of whom did watch the Mets celebrate.

"You never want to see somebody else celebrate on your home field, but for these young guys it's something where when we've seen if before, you want to be those guys," Howard said. "When you see the other team out there, you want to be that guy next year, you want to be out there celebrating on your home field or somebody else's field."

The Phillies are in the midst of their second six-game losing streak in the last month. Losers of eight of their last nine games, the Phillies (70-91) have gone 11-22 since that first six-game losing skid began on August 29.

If nothing else, the Phils have secured a top 10 pick in the MLB draft for the fourth straight year. Entering play on Saturday, just seven teams had more losses than the Phillies.

Aside from San Diego, the Phillies cannot “catch” any of those teams and move into the top 5. But a top 10 pick does guarantee that they would not lose a first-round pick as compensation for signing a premiere free agent this winter, should they decide to go that route.

With Howard departing, they’re surely going to need to add some thunder to the middle of the lineup. With the Mets celebrating, and the NL East champion Washington Nationals heading to the postseason, too, Saturday was also a reminder of the cyclical nature of professional sports, and of how much catching up the Phillies need to do.

"I remember when I was here we’d go to Washington and it seemed like there were more Philadelphia fans than Washington fans," Mackanin said. "They turned it around. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to get back where we need to be and we’re going to be one of those teams, just like the Mets right now. I think we’re going to bounce back."

 • RHoward's fifth-inning home run was the 382nd of his career, tying Hall of Famer Jim Rice and Frank Howard for 67th place on the all-time home run list. Like Rice, a lifelong Boston Red Sox slugger, Howard has hit all of his home runs with one team.

There are only 14 players in major league history who have hit more career home runs, and all with one team. Phillies Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt leads the pack, with 548 home runs. 

The rest of that Hall of Fame-laden group: Mickey Mantle (536 home runs, Yankees), Ted Williams (521, Red Sox), Ernie Banks (512, Cubs), Mel Ott (511, Giants), Lou Gehrig (493, Yankees), Stan Musial (475, Cardinals), Willie Stargell (475, Pirates), Chipper Jones (468, Braves), Carl Yastrzemski (452, Red Sox), Jeff Bagwell (449, Astros), Cal Ripken (431, Orioles), Al Kaline (399, Tigers), and Johnny Bench (389, Reds).

Howard received a curtain call after hitting his game-tying home run on Saturday. 

"I think it's awesome," he said. "Kind of getting the curtain call, to be able to hit the home run in the first place and then get the curtain call, to have the fans show that kind of appreciation, it's a great feeling."

With the Mets clinching both a playoff berth and home field for Wednesday's Wild Card game, Sunday should officially be Ryan Howard Day at Citizens Bank Park. 

Hector Neris struck out two of the six batters he faced in the ninth inning of Saturday's game. Neris has 102 strikeouts this season, the second-most ever by a Phillies reliever. Dick Selma struck out 153 batters in 1970, but also in nearly twice as many innings as Neris. Selma racked up 134 1/3 innings in 73 games in '70 compared to Neris' 79 1/3 innings in 78 games in '16.

Neris also allowed a run on Saturday, too. Since last Saturday night in New York, 20 of the last 27 relief pitchers to enter the game for the Phillies have allowed at least one earned run.

Since September 15, the Phillies bullpen has an MLB-worst 9.57 ERA (62 earned runs in 58 1/3 innings). 

 • Cesar Hernandez became the first Phillies batter to reach base on Saturday when he bunted for a single in the fourth inning. It was Hernandez's NL-leading 15th bunt hit of the season, the most by a Phillies player since current bench coach Larry Bowa also had 15 in 1975.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21