Ford: Howard's play puts Mackanin in tough spot

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Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard.

While the overall story of the Phillies 2016 season has been moderately and unexpectedly interesting until very recently, the plot surrounding first baseman Ryan Howard has become, somewhat like the subject himself, a bit old and slow-moving.

Howard is stuck in time, unable to return to previous seasons of glory, unable to transport himself a year ahead to what will certainly be his first season of retirement. He is increasingly defined by what he is not, rather than what he is. He is not the regular first baseman any longer. He is not a strict platoon player, either, avoiding only the lefthanded starters who have bedeviled him for some time.

What does that leave? Well, it leaves manager Pete Mackanin with a tough job, trying to satisfy the organization's desire to judge young Tommy Joseph while keeping the Howard situation from becoming a distraction. It isn't easy, since the embarrassment of playing Howard too infrequently might be equaled only by the embarrassment of playing him too much.

"I think about it all the time," Mackanin said Monday, after turning in a lineup card that had Howard at first base and batting cleanup against Washington. "That's the hard part of this job. It's not just running the game. It's handling the players."

Howard, who went 1 for 4 with two strikeouts in the 4-3 loss, did have a mini-highlight in the ninth inning when he sliced a first-pitch double into left-center field off closer Jonathan Papelbon to drive in a run. It was just his seventh hit in May and raised his average this month to .108, but when things have been going as they have for Howard, he was happy to have it.

The start against righthander Tanner Roark was given to Howard even though Joseph was in the previous game's lineup against a righthander, which some interpreted as an organizational sea change. Mackanin is picking through this dilemma, and talking about it, as carefully as possible, however. He probably wishes there were more lefthanded starters in the National League. That would make his life easier, but the percentage isn't going to change much anytime soon.

"The plan isn't to platoon Joseph and Howard. The plan is to get a look at Joseph. He's been hitting righthanders in triple A, so we'll try to keep him going and not sit for too long," Mackanin said.

The plan is being made up as they go along. It would be unsurprising if it plays out with Howard getting two games a week and Joseph getting the others. If the younger player is in the lineup against all the lefthanders and half the righthanders, it would work out pretty close to that. Mackanin is only hinting in that direction, and can't really say if he would prefer the front office handle this differently. He tries to say the right things and undoubtedly hopes he won't have to keep saying them until the end of September.

"They don't tell me who to play and when to play them. I know they want me to mix in Joseph against righthanders so he doesn't stagnate. That's pretty much what I go by now," Mackanin said. "Howie's still in the picture. He's not being benched. I'm just going to give a little more of his playing time to Joseph."

Joseph, who is just happy to be here, happy to be anywhere without concussion symptoms, isn't going to complain about the arrangement. Unless Howard's bat suddenly comes alive during his truncated playing schedule, he doesn't have much of a case for complaint, either. That turn of events - admittedly pretty unlikely - would make the daily lineup a more difficult chore for Mackanin, but he says he'd welcome the change.

"I'm not at the point where I'm giving up on him. I'm hoping that he's going to come out of it," Mackanin said. "Guys go through stretches. I'm hoping this is a stretch he's going to come out of."

Doing so while playing twice a week at the age of 36 isn't going to happen, however. That's not how baseball works and every person in the Phillies' organization knows it. They are just trying to get through the season without hurting anyone's career or feelings. It's a difficult balancing act, but this is how the situation will be handled, at least for now. There are other options - putting him on the disabled list, releasing him, benching him fully - but the Phils have chosen to place a Band-Aid on the broken leg and call it a plan.

Monday night against Roark, whose fastball ranges mostly around 92-93 miles per hour, Howard struck out in each of his first two at-bats. Both strikeouts came on the kind of chest-high fastball he once feasted upon. He reached for an outside breaking ball in the sixth inning and lifted a high drive that centerfielder Ben Revere slid and caught on the warning track.

The double off Papelbon came with a sharp crack that reverberated into the past, but the overall performance didn't make the plan look any better. The Phils had just four hits before the ninth. Howard is far from the offense's only problem, but he is usually the most obvious one when he plays.

This is a ship that has enough trouble sailing forward and every few days Mackanin is forced to toss a rusted anchor in the water. The manager says he's fine with the plan. He'll make it work. No one else is saying much of anything, but there really isn't much to say, either. The plot, like the anchor, continues to drag along the bottom.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports