Among the 12 hitters in baseball who have had at least 300 plate appearances in the cleanup spot this season, Howard ranks 12th in batting average (.217), slugging percentage (.363) and OPS (.664). Howard’s OPS was nearly 70 points lower than the next closest cleanup hitters (Arizona’s Miguel Montero, .733).
And only one player in baseball has had more plate appearances than Howard out of the fourth spot this season: Miami’s Casey McGehee.
But Howard, who has started 8 of 9 games since his benching, remained entrenched in the cleanup spot. Naturally, he homered out Houston’s Dallas Keuchel in his first at-bat on Tuesday night.
And then much, much later in the night, he won the game, too.
After the Astros decided to intentionally walk Utley to get to Howard, the former MVP dripped a single through the shift to right field, bringing Grady Sizemore home with the game-winning run in a 2-1, 15-inning walk-off win.
“I think you guys forget what I’ve done,” Howard said when asked if it’s beneficial to have his manager’s faith in his role in the middle of the lineup. “You guys look at what’s going on right now. People forget what I’ve done. Ryno has played the game. He knows. He knows the ups and downs of the game and he knows you’re going to have good days and bad days.
“For me, I’m just going to go out there and grind it out. I’m going to hit balls that are unfortunately going to go into the shift and balls back up the middle that guys are going to make plays on. All you can try to do is hit it hard and hopefully hit it where they’re not.”
The 15-inning game as the longest of the season for the Phillies, who have played 14-or-more innings in five games this season. That ties a franchise record: the Phillies also played five 14-inning games in 1958.
“It’s happened a lot,” said Sandberg, who didn’t look weary following the latest late-night affair. “It’s happen a lot this year. But it seems like we’ve come away with wins in out share of them.”
After homering off Keuchel, Howard slipped back into his slump for most of the night. He grounded out in three consecutive at-bats, making five outs in three trips to the plate.
In the eighth, his second consecutive at-bat ending in a 4-6-3 double play thwarted a rally.
When the game went into extra innings, Howard was hit on the hand by a pitch (in the 11th) and struck out looking (in the 13th).
“I thought the ball was a little up,” Howard said. “(With) two strikes, probably have to go after it a little bit. I was just trying to stay with my approach.”
Howard was thankful to have another chance.
Shortly after the clock struck midnight, Sizemore led off the 15th with a single and Ben Revere bunted him into scoring position. After Jimmy Rollins flew out to center, the Astros decided to take their chances with Howard instead of Utley, whose only hit of the night was his first in 19 at-bats.
Apparently the opposing managers, like the media, had forgotten what the first baseman had done in his career. Howard used it was motivation.
“You want to go up there with a little chip on your shoulder,” Howard said. “So when they walked Chase, I wanted to get it done. I wanted to go out there and get it done.”
Howard jumped on a 1-2 curveball from Jake Buchanan and won the game.
“I'm trying to give him the opportunity to get right and give him at-bats and to get hot and to get going,” Sandberg said before the game of keeping Howard in the cleanup spot. “We need him right in the middle of the lineup.”
The Phillies need a little of everything else throughout the rest of the lineup, too. The two runs Howard knocked in on Tuesday were the only two runs the Phillies have scored over a 36-inning stretch that began on Friday.
For 15 innings, however, the Phillies pitchers made the paltry run support stand up.
Kyle Kendrick retired 10 straight to begin the night, and allowed just one run on five hits in seven innings. The seven relievers that followed combined for eight shutout innings, highlighted by Antonio Bastardo, who struck out 6 of the 7 hitters he faced in the 11th and 12th innings.
“That was as good as if I've seen him,” Sandberg said. “He was on his game.”