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June 10, 2016

Howard told it's Joseph's job, and Tommy homers twice in Phils loss

WASHINGTON – It was a conversation Pete Mackanin didn't want to have, one that he would rather have avoided altogether. And, frankly, he probably didn't have to bring Ryan Howard into his office prior to Friday night's game at Nationals Park.

The rookie's numbers were doing all of the talking necessary. The franchise's direction, building toward the future, provided all of the proverbial writing on the wall that an already-struggling, 36-year-old Ryan Howard should need to understand where the manager and the team were going, without him, come 2017.

But Mackanin obviously has a lot of respect for Howard, the former MVP, the man Charlie Manuel nicknamed "The Big Piece," as his place in the middle of a lineup during what was arguably the best era in franchise history.

"I gotta go with Tommy Joseph right now,” Mackanin said he told Howard before the Phillies 61st game of the season. "I can’t sit Tommy Joseph. ... (Howard) didn’t have a whole lot to say. You can’t argue about Tommy Joseph."

No, you really can't.

Howard was no longer in the clubhouse after Mackanin spoke to reporters after the game on Friday night. Earlier in the day, Joseph saw his name back in Mackanin's lineup following a two-day absence and Thursday’s scheduled day off.

The 24-year-old Arizona native, nicknamed ‘The Scorpion’ by the man he has replaced at first base, has done a fair amount of stinging of opposing pitchers' pitches since his arrival four weeks earlier. Joseph entered Friday having hit safely in 13 of his 15 starts since arriving from Allentown and without an error in the 121 chances he’s had at first base, a position he only began playing regularly last year.

Joseph put his stamp on his new job in a 9-6 loss to the Washington Nationals on Friday night.

Joseph homered twice – first off Stephen Strasburg to up the Phillies lead to 4-0 in the third inning, and later to cut his team’s deficit to 9-6 in the eighth – to provide a positive storyline for Mackanin and Co. in an otherwise forgettable defeat.

Joseph has seven home runs in his first 21 career major league games. According to STATS, Joseph is the only Phillies player to hit seven home runs in his first 21 games since 1913 (when their statistical database begins).

"You can’t say enough about Tommy Joseph," Mackanin said. "He looks like the real deal and it’s great to have him here."

On Friday night, Joseph joined Colorado's Trevor Story (8 HR) and San Francisco's Jarrett Parker (7 HR) as the three players to homer in their first 69 career plate appearances in the 2016 season. The last Phillies player to do so was Bobby Estalella (7 HR in first 69 PA from 1996-98).

Joseph trails just two of his teammates, Maikel Franco (10 home runs in 57 games) and Howard (nine in 52), for the team lead in home runs. Only eight major league rookies have more home runs, and all of them except Seattle’s Dae-Ho Lee (99 at-bats) has at least twice as many at-bats as Joseph’s 65 this season.

Joseph, the former catcher prospect acquired from the San Francisco Giants in the 2012 Hunter Pence trade, is hitting .323 with a 1.010 OPS. Joseph, who had to move off the catching position after a series of concussions and was removed from the Phillies 40-man roster just eight months ago because of more than a couple of seasons lost to injuries, is not only the Phillies new starting first baseman, but one of the top hitting rookies in the National League, too.

It's safe to say he's having fun.

"This is what I prepared for all winter long, not only physically but mentally," Joseph said of his journey. "This is what I wanted, an opportunity to play in the big leagues so yeah, I’m enjoying my time. I’ve come up through the minor leagues with a lot of these guys and to get the opportunity to play with them in the big leagues – I’m enjoying every minute of it."

Mackanin said Howard was among the first players to greet Joseph in the dugout after one of his two home runs on Friday night.

"He’s the best," Joseph said of Howard. "The best. He’s been great. Very easy to talk to. He’s been there for me every step of the way whenever I need something and he’s a good guy to learn from."

If you want to hear about the rest of Friday’s game, well, we’ll try to be brief.

Jeremy Hellickson was spotted a four-run lead, thanks to Joseph and a bottom half of the lineup that scratched across two runs in the second inning with a lot of small ball. Hellickson was not able to hold that lead.

Jayson Werth cut the Nationals deficit in half in the third with a two-run double. Wilson Ramos and former Camden Rivershark Stephen Drew hit back-to-back home runs to tie the game in the fourth. Hellickson got touched up for three more runs in the next two innings, capped by another home run from Mendoza Line-flirting Danny Espinosa.

Hellickson’s pitching line did not help his trade value: 6 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 3 HR. Having more walks than strikeouts is never good; having more home runs allowed than strikeouts is always bad.

But at least the Phillies have Joseph. And in a season when the Phillies are trying to figure out what they have at the major league level as minor leaguers await opportunities, it's difficult to find a more encouraging story than the one Joseph has been writing with his bat for the last month.

Howard, meanwhile, is owed roughly $26 million on the remainder of his five-year, $125 million contract. 

He is hitting .150 in 52 games this season. 

Among major leaguers with at least 125 plate appearances this season, that .150 ranks 265th out of 266 hitters. Among 33 major league first baseman with at least 125 plate appearances, Howard's .559 OPS ranks 32nd.

But Mackanin still felt he owed the franchise icon a conversation.

"I flat out don’t like it," Mackanin said. "I don’t like to have to deal with it because what he’s done for the organization over the years. ... I’m just going to try to get Howard some at-bats, pinch hit, maybe spot start him here and there. That’s the only solution I have. ... It's a competitive business."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21