There’s a lot of questions going around involving Spencer Howard and the Philadelphia Phillies.

Maybe the Phillies have this all wrong. Maybe Ranger Suarez should be the guy starting games and Spencer Howard should be coming out of the bullpen. Or maybe Howard should be in the minor leagues, learning how to get to the middle innings, which should the least any starting pitcher in the big-leagues can do.

Howard hit a wall again Saturday afternoon and failed to get out of the third inning. The Phillies capitalized on an error and scored four unearned runs in the fourth inning — three came on Andrew McCutchen’s 10th homer of the season — and went on to beat the Washington Nationals, 5-2, in front of just 16,118 at Citizens Bank Park. 

Here’s three takeaways:

Howard continues problems

For the second time in three starts this season, Howard’s fastball velocity dipped considerably as the game hit the third inning. He showed a 97 mph fastball in the first inning and racked up a bunch of 93s in the third inning. His final fastball of the day was just 91 mph.

Howard has been the Phillies’ top starting pitching prospect for several years. He doesn’t turn 25 until the end of July and he’s far from a finished product. His future remains potentially bright, but is that future as a starter or a reliever? And is his future being best served by being in the majors, struggling to get through three innings, at this point?

“I think he’s developing,” manager Joe Girardi said after the win, which has the Phillies with a record of 27-30. “When you pitch in games like this, I think you’re always going to learn stuff. He just struggled today.”

Girardi said Howard was healthy. No prospect as valuable as him would be on the mound if he wasn’t. It remains a mystery why Howard is not holding his velocity. The team has evaluated his diet and the pitcher recently disclosed that he’s begun eating a banana with peanut butter shortly before starts to build some quick energy. A banana with peanut butter is very underrated I must say, very good and healthy snack.

Even Howard is stumped by the struggles he’s encountering as the game reaches the third inning.

“I can’t point to one specific reason but it does seem like there’s a wall that I’ve got to push through,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s physical, mental, mechanical or whatnot. I’m racking my brain, too. I can’t put my finger on it, but I’ll for sure be working on it.”

A quickly fading fastball wasn’t Howard’s only issue Saturday. His command was poor. He faced 11 batters. He walked two of them and hit another. He threw 48 pitches — 26 strikes and 22 balls, not a good ratio.

“I struggled to command my off-speed stuff, and really the fastball, for that matter, too. It’s a tough game when you can’t control your pitches,” he said.

In three starts, Howard has walked nine batters in just 9 1/3 innings.

Howard also struggled as a starter last season. He allowed 30 hits and 10 walks in 24 1/3 innings and pitched to a 5.92 ERA. He did miss time with shoulder stiffness/soreness.

Suarez has been the first guy out of the bullpen in all three of Howard’s starts this season and delivered two, three and three scoreless innings, respectively. With his first-inning power, maybe Howard is better suited to be a reliever. Or maybe he needs to go back to AAA and learn to get to the middle innings.

It doesn’t appear as if that is the plan for now, however.

“Every game that he’s started, he’s kept us in the game,” Girardi said. “I know I’ve gone to Ranger, but we do have an innings limit on Spencer. It’s not like I’m going to let him go seven or eight innings. That’s not going to happen. It’s worked out well combining these two and we’ll probably continue to do it.”

Suarez deals

Suarez, huge with three innings of scoreless relief, earned the win. He faced 12 batters and only three of them reached base on a pair of errors — Philadelphia scored a hat trick, just with errors — and a hit batsman. Suarez’s scoreless innings streak is now at 12 1/3. For the season, he’s allowed just one unearned run in 17 1/3 innings.

Suarez, a confident, 25-year-old lefty from Venezuela, was developed as a starting pitcher in the Phillies’ minor-league system and made three starts for the club in 2018.

Maybe it’s time he got another one, or two, or three. Or just become our fifth starter, it’s not a crazy concept.

Harper returns off of IL

Bryce Harper says he’s 100% healthy. Wrist feels good. Back feels good. Shoulder feels good.

“I’m ready to go and excited to be back,” he said before his first start since May 22 on Saturday afternoon.

“When I step on the field, I try to bring passion into what I do every single day. I’m excited to get out there and grind with my guys. (The ballpark is) 100% capacity, so I’m excited to be out there for a game and be with the fans. Hopefully, win today, win tomorrow, win the series, and we can get going.”

Harper helped out with Saturday’s win. He had an RBI single, stole a base, scored a run, was hit by a pitch, went first to third on the bases, and froze a runner at third with a strong throw from right field.

“It’s great to have him back,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He did a nice job. There’s a lot of different things he can do. We missed that.

“It’s not only his production, but his presence is important. As a manager, you always know where the dangerous guys are. They affect how you manage a game.”

Harper had been on the injured list with a left forearm contusion, which was the result of his getting hit by a pitch in St. Louis on April 28. Harper was actually hit in the face with a 97 mph fastball that night. Amazingly, he suffered no facial injuries. The ball, however, deflected off his face and hit his forearm/wrist with some force. Harper missed a few days then returned May 2. He played in 15 games, hit just .211 with 26 strikeouts in 57 at-bats before shutting it down and eventually going on the 10-day disabled list.

“It really just wasn’t feeling right when I was swinging or any other activity, really,” Harper said. “I needed to get the swelling out of there. I think the swelling was probably irritating me really bad. We finally just decided to take the 10 days to give it a break and give it a little rest. It’s definitely helped. I feel a lot better.

Harper said he had normal fear getting back in the batter’s box after taking a 97 mph fastball to the face from St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Genesis Cabrera, but it was nothing he couldn’t overcome.

“It’s definitely nervous, right? You get a little nervous,” he said. “But I felt pretty good. Like I said before, it’s part of the game. Any time you step in the batter’s box, you feel like it could happen. And that’s how I felt prior to getting hit.”

In the batter’s box, fastballs gave Harper some trouble in the 15 games he played after getting hit. Harper would not blame that on the sore wrist.

“Sometimes it just happens,” he said. “Sometimes they just get it by you. You have to figure it out and come back and try to be better.”

Harper entered Saturday’s game hitting .274 with seven homers, 13 RBIs, and a .884 OPS in 38 games. His strikeout percentage of 27.8 was the highest of his career.

In addition to his wrist, Harper has dealt with nagging issues in his lower back and right shoulder this season. The trip to the IL has cleared up everything.

“Everything’s good,” he said. “Everything’s good.”

To make room for Harper on the active roster, the Phillies placed reliever Hector Neris on paternity leave.

In other news, Didi Gregorius said the pain and swelling has subsided in his right elbow. He took batting practice Saturday. Gregorius will likely need some minor-league playing time before he’s activated.

Up next

Phils will try and get the series win Sunday afternoon with Vince Velasquez on the mound. The Nationals haven’t announced a starter yet.