Second-round pick shows some flashes

Only one pitch separated Spencer Howard from an outing he described as “not great” and an outing which he could be quite happy with.

If he could take back the hanging change-up he threw to Lowell’s Garrett Benge, it would have completely changed the complexion of his second start with the Crosscutters. For the most part, the Phillies’ second-round pick in last month’s draft was pretty content with his outing in Saturday’s extra-inning win over Lowell. But it was that one pitch which stuck in his craw a little bit.

“I wish I could have that one back,” Ho­ward said Sunday af­ternoon sitting in the Cutters’ dug­out. “It was a good at-bat. He fouled off a couple at 1-2. But if I get that change-up below the zone, he swings over it and it’s a strikeout and I’m out of the inning with no runs.”

That one pitch was punched to left field by Benge, scoring a pair of runs and continuing a rollercoaster inning for Howard. He had just struck out two batters in a row after allowing the first two to reach base, and with Benge he had an opportunity to get out of the inning unscathed. Instead, he left up the two-strike change-up.

Howard finished his second outing of the season after 2 2/3 innings, allowing a pair of hits and a pair of walks, striking out four. He threw 43 of his 65 pitches for strikes and threw a first-pitch strike to eight of the 12 batters he faced.

“I mean, it was not great by any means,” Howard said. “But I took away some positives and threw some good pitches. I just got lazy with a couple of them. And mistakes here will get hit.”

Howard struggled with his command in that fateful first inning. The 32 pitches he threw in the opening frame led to his shortened outing. Coming off a full college season at Cal Poly, the Phillies are easing Howard back into baseball before letting him go all out in a start.

It was the same thing which burned him in his first start last week when he lasted just two innings and threw 45 pitches in his first professional start. But don’t be fooled by the brevity of both outings. There’s something worth watching in Howard’s ability.

Saturday night, Howard’s second inning of work was a thing of beauty. His fastball exploded out of his hand with ease. He induced a fly ball to right field then struck out two batters in a row on his way to a clean inning. He got two more quick outs to start the third inning before a nine-pitch walk ended his outing after 65 pitches.

“I knew it was always in there,” Howard said. “I think the second outing in the first inning I was still a little too amped up for my own good. I think in the second inning I kind of calmed down and got in the groove and got where I wanted to be and where I should have been in the first inning. It’s definitely nice to know it’s there and it’s just a matter of being more consistent.”

Consistency is exactly what’s been missing in his first two starts, but prior to his pro debut Howard hadn’t pitched in a game since a May 26 win against UC Riverside. The Phillies made him the 45th overall pick in last month’s draft after he went 8-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 17 appearances for the Mus­tangs. He struck out 97 batters in 87 2/3 innings at Cal Poly this spring, and that ability to miss bats has translated to pro ball so far.

In his first outing, he was sitting at 93-95 mph with his fastball, and for the most part it’s looked pretty effortless. Howard said that has been a change since arriving in Williamsport because pitching coach Hector Berrios has gotten him to utilize his lower half more than he ever did when he was in college.

“I’m more under control. Usually when I got the 93s and 95s in college, it was me really amping up and trying to overthrow and the ball would get left up,” Howard said. “Hector said you can always be more efficient with your body. That’s kind of what I’m adjusting to still. So sometimes I’ll revert back to trying to yank the ball and throw too hard. But that’s just the nature of the beast with me, getting in the way of myself. It’s still a learning process and it still feels unnatural right now, but I’m sure with my next bullpen (Monday) and my next outing I’ll more used to it.”