A day after he made comments in Chicago that alluded to the trimming of Ryan Howard’s playing time against right-handed pitchers, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin sat at his desk, surrounded by reporters, and was pressed for 10 minutes on the issue of his declining, expensive and struggling first baseman and franchise icon.
Howard, of course, was penciled into the lineup in the cleanup spot against righty Tanner Roark for Monday’s 4-3 loss to the visiting Washington Nationals (see game recap).
A question of was barely out of a reporter’s mouth when Mackanin quickly interjected a “hell yes.”
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It’s the hardest decision - what to do with the struggling Howard - he’s had to make in his brief time managing the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I think about it all the time,” Mackanin said.
“That’s the hard part of this job. It’s not just running the game, it’s handling the players.”
For now, Mackanin said, he hasn’t felt the need to talk to Howard about it. Howard, who sat Sunday for the second time in eight days against a righty, said Sunday he was unaware his manager was intending on reducing his playing time against righties (see story).
Once a platoon situation at first base, it appears the Phillies are going to take a longer look at rookie Tommy Joseph against right-handed pitchers in the near future.
“If I was going to sit (Howard) on the bench and he wasn’t going to play anymore, I’d have that conversation,” Mackanin said. “I think what I said was pretty obvious.”
“I didn’t say I was going to bench Howard.”
He didn’t Monday. Howard had good numbers against Roark, something he didn’t have against Sunday’s starter for the Cubs, John Lackey. So it looks like Mackanin’s decision will be based on matchups.
In his second at-bat Monday, a second straight strikeout on the night and 12th in his last 22 at-bats, Howard was way late on a 93-mph fastball on the outer half of the plate.
But he looked much better in his final two at-bats of the night.
In the bottom of the sixth, he drove a Roark changeup to the warning track deep in right-center, but Ben Revere closed quickly and made the catch.
In his last at-bat, after Maikel Franco led off the ninth inning with a double, Howard jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Jonathan Papelbon and drove a double to the gap in left-centerfield, scoring Franco and putting the tying run in scoring position with no outs.
Those two swings were the ones Mackanin said Monday afternoon he “knew” were there. He later corrected himself and said it was more of a situation of “hope.”
Howard went 1 for 4 on the night. His May average is now .106.
“He needed to come through with a big hit and that was a huge hit, put the tying run at second base,” Mackanin said. “It was good to see.”
The Phillies are slated to face a righty in their next six games before facing Jon Lester and the Cubs at home next Monday. Joseph, who is hitting .278 with three home runs in his first 36 Major League at-bats, figures to get the start in the majority of those.
It’s a decision Mackanin says he’s going to make on a day-by-day basis.
He was asked if the front office, which is also in a tough spot and may have to do something soon, gave him any input on what to do.
“They don’t tell me who to play and when to play them,” Mackanin said. “I know that they want me to mix in Joseph against right-handers so that he doesn’t stagnate. That’s pretty much all I go by right now.”
A suggestion from upstairs isn’t unprecedented. It has already happened before during the young 2016 season.
“They asked me to - as bad as (Tyler) Goeddel looked early in the season - they asked me if I could try to mix him in a little more,” Mackanin said. “I said sure. I did, and he started hitting better. So now he’s playing more. Here we go, if you want to play more than you gotta hit.
“There’s nothing set in stone.”