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August 12, 2016

On Thome's night, Howard's slam sends Phillies to victory

The emphatic swing. The quick drop of the bat. The small nod to himself.

The fact that the ball landed 457 feet away in the visiting team’s bullpen, which sits next to – fittingly – the plaques that honor the greatest players in Phillies history in the franchise’s Wall of Fame.

Friday night belonged to Jim Thome, the celebrated slugger who breathed baseball back into South Philly 13 years earlier. Thome, a surefire Hall of Famer who is one of just eight players in the history of the sport to hit 600 home runs, was enshrined into that Wall of Fame on Friday night, with his old pal and former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, the 2014 Wall of Fame inductee, and Mike Schmidt, the franchise home run king and Hall of Famer, among those on the stage for the ceremony.

During the ceremony, Ryan Howard was among the many other to greet Thome with thoughtful words of congratulations. It was Howard, of course, who was once the budding prospect that forced Pat Gillick's hand, trading Thome to the Chicago White Sox to solve the first base logjam.

A funny thing about that logjam: it never became awkward because, like Thome, Howard was and has always been a classy, team-first guy. He’s also been a guy who has hit his share of ballpark rattling home runs.

On the night the man he replaced was celebrated, Howard apparently wanted to remind everyone he’ll be on that wall, too.

With the bases loaded and one out in the fifth, and the Phillies and Rockies tied at three runs apiece, Howard found a 95-MPH fastball from right-hander Jon Gray on the lower half of the plate and absolutely annihilated it. Howard’s grand slam, the 14th of his career, the most in Phillies history, guided the Phillies to a 10-6 win.

"Pretty special," Howard said of his starring role on Jim Thome Wall of Fame Night. "I mean to be able to do it in that situation on a night like tonight, it was pretty cool."

As Howard rounded the bases, the 23,600 folks at Citizens Bank Park stood up and applauded like it was 2006 all over again. But in a perfect scene of serendipity, there was Thome standing and cheering with them, and also with his young son, Bobby Abreu, and Manuel, too.

Shortly after he returned to the dugout, Howard, who finished the night 3-for-5 with five RBI, popped back out of it to acknowledge the still-cheering crowd. Curtain calls used to be the norm for the man with the MVP trophy, the six straight seasons with 30 home runs, the World Series ring, and National League Championship Series MVP.

But could he even remember his most recent one, prior to Friday?

"No – do you know?" he asked.

Nope, stumped. But it had to feel good for a guy who has never been quite the same since rupturing his Achilles' five years ago and was hitting .148 on July 1.

"Felt great," Howard said. "Felt great. I mean to be able to do it in that situation on a night like tonight, it was pretty cool."

Howard’s Phillies career will be over in less than two months. But after a horrendous start to his last season with the only big league franchise he’s ever known, the 36-year-old Howard has done a fine job of adjusting to his new role as the guy who shares first base with rookie Tommy Joseph.

Since June 23, roughly two weeks after manager Pete Mackanin tapped Joseph as the team’s starting first baseman, Howard has hit .324 (23-for-71) with seven home runs and five doubles in 26 games.

"He wasn’t playing for a while, and I think the fact that he’s well-rested, especially in this part of the year, is helping him," Mackanin said when asked if it's possible having fresher legs has led to a resurgence in productivity, even in a small sample size. 

But then the manager credit the veteran's work ethic throughout a trying 2016 season.

"Over the time where he wasn’t playing," Mackanin said, "he never stopped working and kept his chin up and kept plugging. Now it’s paying off for him and he’s swinging the bat as well as I’ve seen him."

 Howard changed his setup some since May, crouching lower in his stance. But beyond that?

"It's really just trying to grind out at-bats and just see the ball and hit the ball, not make it too complicated," Howard said.

On a night when home run heroes were celebrated, Colorado leadoff hitter Charlie Blackmon got in the act with a hat trick of long balls, one off of three different pitchers, including Jake Thompson, who bounced back from his rough big league debut to collect his first major league win. But Friday night was Thome once again handing the baton to Howard.

The next All-Star first baseman in Phillies history will have a hard time matching the careers of either home run hero.

  Ryan Howard's near two-month hot streak has led to a topic of conversation that would have seemed impossible in June: is it possible a contending team would be interested in trading for Howard (through waivers) prior to Sept. 1? 

  Remember, no one thought Chase Utley had trade value in June of 2015 and he was traded in mid-August. And no one is saying Howard is a difference-making, middle-of-the-lineup bat for a contending team, but if he can produce like he has in the last seven weeks, it's not a stretch at all to think he can at least be a Matt Stairs Circa 2008/09, home run threat off the bench.

  "If I were a playoff team, I’d take notice," Mackanin said of Howard, who has a .667 slugging percentage in 27 games since June 22. "What he did tonight is something he’s capable of doing, either as a DH or a pinch-hitter off the bench. He’s just swinging the bat, coming up with big hits. I’m happy for him."
  More recently, beyond his two-month stretch, Howard has hit safely in seven of his last eight games, with four doubles and three home runs. Howard tied Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty in two franchise-best lists on Friday, moving into a tie for third in extra-base hits, with 670, and in eighth place in games played (1,544).

 Jake Thompson's command was spotty, but the rookie allowed just two hits in five innings of his second big league start, and first in Philadelphia. 

  He also pulled off a feat no Phillies pitcher had accomplished in more than 100 years: Thompson struck out four batters in the second inning, becoming just the second player in franchise history to collect four Ks in one inning. Doc White was the only before Thompson, striking out four batters in the fifth inning of an eventual 10-1 defeat at Brooklyn on July 21, 1902.

  • Cesar Hernandez has thrived since moving into the leadoff spot: he has a .438 OBP in 18 games since moving to the top spot in Mackanin's lineup on July 24. Hernandez's 15 walks in 15 games since July 27 are the most in baseball during that time frame.

  On Friday, Hernandez went 2-for-4 with a triple, a walk, a stolen base, and two runs scored. Hernandez's triple was his major league-leading ninth of the season – it's the most from a Phillies player since Shane Victorino collected 16 triples in 2011. 

Hernandez also did this: 

That's a lot of pitches.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21