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May 17, 2016

Joseph hits first major league home run, leads Phillies to win ... but will sit tomorrow

It’s been 662 days since a Phillies manager purposely left a healthy Ryan Howard out of his starting lineup for three straight games.

You may remember it. It was a week before the trade deadline in 2014, when the last-place Phillies (losers of four straight and seven of their last eight games) were reeling and Howard was hitting .224 with a .682 OPS and 15 home runs in his first 97 games of the season.

Then-manager Ryne Sandberg put his foot down, at least temporarily, benching the less-than-productive Howard for three straight games in the middle of the summer.

“It’s also about win and losses here, when the game starts, it’s about winning the game,” Sandberg said before the first of those games. “It’s about being productive, chipping in, doing the part, doing something to help win the game. If that means playing someone else there, and there’s production right away – more production – that’s trying to win a baseball game. ... I know what (Howard) can do. I think it’s important to see what a guy like Darin Ruf can do going forward.”

Ruf is gone. He was replaced by the 24-year-old Tommy Joseph last Friday.

Joseph, making his third start since his arrival on Tuesday night against the Miami Marlins, fueled the Phillies to a 3-1 win with three hits, including his first major league home run.

Joseph's home run – a bullet down the left field line – stayed fair and got caught in the netting just inside the pole.

"Perfect," said Joseph, who saw his name in the fourth spot of the lineup on his fifth day in the big leagues when he arrived to Citizens Bank Park earlier in the afternoon. 

"That was pretty neat," he said. "I didn’t expect that. A lot of this game is being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. To hit cleanup for this team, which is playing really well right now, it’s pretty awesome."

But he won't be in that same spot tomorrow. He'll be on the bench.

All three of Joseph’s starts in the last five days came against a left-handed pitcher, with the left-handed hitting Howard on the bench. The Marlins send right-hander Tom Koehler to the mound on Wednesday afternoon.

Will Pete Mackanin continue to employ a platoon, or will he heed the advice of his predecessor, but also follow through with it beyond a three-game break? Back in 2014, Sandberg may have said those words, but he also plugged Howard back into the lineup after three games and played the former MVP regularly for the final two months of the season.

"No, I'm going to play Howie tomorrow," Mackanin said of whether Joseph earned a third straight start. "I’m committed to doing what we’re doing. Howie is a big part of the team. We have to get him going."

With three-quarters of the 2016 season still to be played, it’ll be plenty interesting to see which way Mackanin goes and for how long. He didn't seem especially interested in trying to figure it out all on one night, but said a platoon wth occasional starts for Joseph against right-handers was his current game plan.

"But Howie is still a part of the team, he’s a big part of the team," Mackanin said. "We all know what he’s capable of doing. It’s good to see Joseph add some offense to the team. We’ll just play it a day at a time."

Howard, 36 and in the final guaranteed year of his contract, will not be on the Phillies roster next year. Joseph, a former top catching prospect known for his bat, could very well be the team’s first baseman of the future.

And even if he isn’t, the front office needs to find out what he is, and since Joseph can only play first base (he moved off catcher after a series of concussions), the only way to keep him in the lineup is to sit Howard on the bench.

Howard is hitting .174 on the season, which ranks 188th out of 188 qualifying major league players. He has a .244 OBP (184th).

Although he’s hit a team-high eight home runs, Howard’s .657 OPS ranked 22nd out of 24 qualifying first baseman in baseball entering play on Tuesday.

Joseph, meanwhile, had as many hits on Tuesday as Howard has in the last two weeks. Joseph was hitting .347 with six home runs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley prior to his promotion on Friday.

Mackanin said he will start Joseph against some right-handed pitchers simply to keep his bat sharp against them.

"I don’t want him to lose that edge," Mackanin said. "That was one of the things that happened to Ruf, that he didn’t get enough playing time to put a lot of at-bats together. I don’t want that to happen to him."

Mackanin may be showing some respect to Howard and his career in carefully answering questions on Tuesday night, but he was also plenty impressed with the new first baseman in the clubhouse, too.

"I like (Joseph’s) swing, he has a nice level swing," he said "Aggressive. He looks like he’s a pretty good hitter."

• Tommy Joseph had good timing with his first big league home run. Among those in attendance at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday were his brother, his fiancée, and his parents. His parents are flying back to Arizona on Wednesday morning, so they were able to see his home run before getting out of town.

"It’s nice for them to be here and share this moment," Joseph said. "They’ve put a lot of work and effort to getting me in this situation, especially as a kid. I played growing up and they sacrificed a lot."

• Vince Velasquez became the first Phillies pitcher to record at least 10 strikeouts in five innings or fewer since Robert Person struck out 10 in five innings on April 28, 2000. Velasquez needed 74 pitches to get through the game's first three innings, however.

In eight starts, Velasquez has pitched into the seventh inning just once this year.

"It's part of baseball, they're going to foul balls off, you're going to get into deep counts, you just have to put them away when you pick the right pitch and execute," Velasquez said of his five shutout innings that required 103 pitches. "There were times I could have put them away earlier. I kind of beat around the bush a little bit and (wasn't) as competitive as I wanted to (be)."

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Velasquez became just the third Phillies pitcher in the last 30 years (since 1987) to record four starts in a season with at least five innings, no runs, and three or fewer hits. The others: Cliff Lee (who had four such games in 2011) and Kevin Millwood (four games, 2003).

• Carlos Ruiz reached a milestone that only three other catchers in the 134 years of Phillies baseball have ever reached: he played in his 1,000th career game at catcher for the team. The only other three catchers to catch 1,000 games for the Phillies: Mike Lieberthal (1,139 games from 1994-2006), Bob Boone (1,095 games, 1972-81), and Red Dooin (1,124 games, 1902-14). 

Ruiz is just the 48th player in baseball history to catch 1,000 or more games with one team. The only other active player is St. Louis's Yadier Molina (1,473 games).

The Phillies had cake and champagne in the clubhouse to celebrate Ruiz's feat after the game.

"It’s pretty neat to contribute and be a part of a win like that, especially for Chooch’s thousandth game, to be a part of that with a guy I’ve known for a few years," said Joseph, who spent a lot of time with Ruiz during spring training when he was a catcher.  "It’s just been awesome. You can’t say enough of how great of a teammate he is and how great of a guy he is. To be up here for his one thousandth game behind the dish, it’s pretty cool."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21