The baseball disappeared into a flower box above the 374-foot marker in left-center field, a landing spot that delayed an entire stadium's reaction. The fan held his souvenir, a Ryan Howard homer bashed against a lefthanded pitcher, which prompted the meager crowd at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night to rise in melancholic unison.
This second-inning moment dripped with apathy, even a tinge of sadness. The electronic Liberty Bell replica did not ring until Howard neared third base in the first inning of a 2-1 win over Houston in 15 innings. Howard, who halted an 0-for-14 skid and a 22-inning Phillies scoring drought, can tease with powerful swings like this.
"I think you guys forget what I've done," said a defiant Howard, who raised his OPS to .672, seventh-best on the Phillies. "You guys look at what's going on right now. People forget what I've done."
When Tuesday bled into Wednesday, Howard delivered again. He singled through the shift to score Grady Sizemore at 12:14 a.m. to end this 5-hour, 5-minute game. The Astros, who also ignored what Howard has done, intentionally walked Chase Utley to reach him.
"I wanted to get it done," Howard said.
"That's a big confidence booster," manager Ryne Sandberg said.
The Phillies have scored two runs, both on Howard's bat, in their last 36 innings. Those circumstances relegated a remarkable feat - Howard, Utley, and Jimmy Rollins achieved a new standard for infield longevity - to just another footnote in a bland season.
The three teammates started their 887th regular-season game together, the most in major-league history for any first base, second base, and shortstop trio. That topped Los Angeles' 886-game plateau by Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, and Bill Russell. Howard, Utley, and Rollins began their partnership Sept. 8, 2004, in the second game of a doubleheader at Atlanta. The Phillies won, 4-1.
A dogpile near the mound at Citizens Bank Park will forever mark their legacies, although the end is bitter. This season, marred by another underachieving and expensive roster, conjures a marriage that lasted too long.
Howard is one protagonist. He played for just the second time in seven games against a lefthanded starter. He crushed a 79-m.p.h. Dallas Keuchel slider for the homer. His next three at-bats resulted in groundouts to second base. Two were for double plays. All three pitches put in play were fastballs.
Sandberg, ever since benching Howard for three games in late July amid talk of demoting Howard to part-time status, has softened his tone.
"Well, I didn't say it was going to be a platoon," Sandberg said. "I said it could be a possibility down the road. But I want the best for both players and for Ryan Howard to get going, for Darin Ruf to get at-bats, and also for [Howard] to do a little bit better job against lefthanded pitching. It's a little bit of a process, but I'm looking to help two players."
Ruf started Tuesday in left field. Sandberg denied the front office dictated more playing time for Howard.
"No, the reason for the rest was for him to regroup and to make some adjustments, which he continues to search for, and continues to do," Sandberg said. "So hopefully he gets it going."
Howard batted fourth for the 93d time in 113 games. The manager dodged a question about whether he would drop Howard from his customary cleanup spot.
"He continues to make adjustments and look for a comfort zone at home plate, so that's what we need," Sandberg said. "We need him right in the middle of the lineup."
The lineup was impotent again Tuesday. There was little support for Kyle Kendrick's seven solid innings. Utley ended an 0-for-18 streak with a single in the sixth. Howard followed with an inning-ending double play.
Another rally with runners on first and second fizzled in the eighth. Howard slapped one toward Jose Altuve at second. He pivoted to start a crisp 4-6-3 double play. The game played between two hapless teams lingered deep into the night until Howard extricated everyone.
"It feels good," Howard said. "I've hit balls hard over stretches. I don't make any excuses."
The Three Amigos
Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins started their 887th regular-season game together Tuesday at first base, second base, and shortstop. The Phillies trio set a major-league record for most games started together in the field at those positions. The previous record was held by the Dodgers trio of Steve Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second, and Bill Russell at short.
Source: Elias Sports Bureau