Meet Spencer Howard, the Phillies pitching prospect with wipeout stuff and top-of-the-rotation potential

Lakewood BlueClaws

Meet Spencer Howard, the Phillies pitching prospect with wipeout stuff and top-of-the-rotation potential

In the frenzied weeks before the 2017 Major League Baseball draft, Johnny Almaraz traveled to Southern California to watch a player he was considering selecting in the first round.

Almaraz arrived a day early and, at the urging of area scout Shane Bowers, drove over to UCLA to check out a kid from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who was pitching against the Bruins that day.

The Phillies scouting director loved what he saw.

"He ate those UCLA hitters up," Almaraz recalled. "After that, I knew that was the guy we were going to focus on for the second round."

A few weeks later, the Phillies selected University of Virginia outfielder Adam Haseley (not Cal Irvine infielder Keston Hiura, the kid Almaraz had initially gone to California to watch) in the first round of the draft and the pitcher from Cal Poly in the second.

That's how Spencer Howard became a member of the Phillies organization.

The club is sure happy to have him.

In fact, he might be the organization's top pitching prospect, a strong-bodied right-hander with stuff, smarts and toughness.

"Quiet gamer," said Pat Borders, who managed Howard during his first summer of pro ball at Williamsport in 2017. "He'd fight you in an alley."

Howard, 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, emerged as a top prospect at Single A Lakewood last season. He survived some growing pains in his first full season of pro ball and recorded a 3.78 ERA in 23 starts. He struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings. Howard showed some moxie and impressed Phillies officials by getting stronger as the season went on. In his final two starts — both in the South Atlantic League playoffs — he allowed just three hits, one walk and one run in 14 innings while striking out 15. One of those starts was a nine-inning no-hitter. He walked one and struck out nine while throwing 103 pitches in that gem.

Oh, yeah, and a couple of those pitches registered 100 mph on the gun.

"It was unbelievable. It was impeccable," recalled Brad Bergeson, Howard's pitching coach at Lakewood last season. "We'd seen 94 to 97 during the season and he'd flash 98. But it was on a whole other gear that night."

Almaraz calls Howard "a fresh arm." Unlike many other American-born prospects, Howard was not a product of the travel-ball and showcase craze that can eat up a young pitcher's bullets. He was a soccer player. He was so interested in volleyball that he thought about giving up baseball to play that sport as a junior in high school.

"Baseball really wasn't the biggest thing for me," Howard said a few weeks ago in spring training. "I enjoyed it, but not year round. I enjoyed doing other things, too."

He stuck with baseball through high school, went to Cal Poly, just a few minutes from his hometown, as a business major and decided to attend a tryout for walk-ons as a freshman. He threw 88 mph and earned a spot on the fall roster. He ended up redshirting as a freshman, gained some valuable physical strength, and pitched out of the bullpen as a sophomore. It took an injury in the rotation for him to get a chance to start as a junior and he quickly impressed.

Throughout college and his first two seasons of pro ball, Howard's appreciation for baseball grew. Knowledge has ignited a passion.

"I learned how to do baseball full-time," he said. "I've learned the ins and outs of the game. Looking back, I was a thrower and not a pitcher. I'd try to throw it as hard as I could and maybe they'd swing and miss."

Bergeson saw Howard's growth as a pitcher last season.

"The first time I saw him in spring training last year, you could tell the game was a little fast for him, you could see it in his eyes and his delivery," Bergeson said. "So to see where he started from and where he finished was unbelievable. The work that he put in — he's one of the hardest workers I've ever seen. His preparation was second to none.

"He's a power guy with four plus pitches and at times they're all wipeout. All of them. Fastball, curveball, slider, changeup. He's got an unbelievable arsenal. The sky is the limit. It's a special arm."

Howard's arm is so special that the Seattle Mariners requested him when the Phillies tried to get closer Edwin Diaz included in the Jean Segura deal this offseason. The Phils wouldn't do it. Ditto for J.T. Realmuto.

"When the Realmuto trade was made, one of my teammates sent me a screenshot of a tweet that said I was in the deal," Howard said. "He said, 'Well, see you later.' I thought I was gone until it was officially announced."

Howard has opened the new season at advanced Single A Clearwater. He pitched six shutout innings Wednesday night against Lakeland. In his first two starts, he has given up three runs, eight hits and two walks over 10⅓ innings. He has 12 strikeouts. Those who've seen Howard pitch believe he could rise quickly in the system and that would be ideal because he turns 23 on July 28. On his current track, he will get tested in Double A at some point this season and that will give the Phillies an even better idea of what they have.

"Top-of-the-rotation starter," one longtime talent evaluator said of Howard's ceiling.

The hype surrounding Howard has come quickly, but he seems to be a kid who can handle it.

"I ignore it," he said. "If you listen to it, you end up thinking you've already made it when there's still a lot of work to do. Just keep pitching, keep grinding."

And if staying grounded ever becomes a challenge, Howard only needs to look back at that game he pitched against UCLA in 2017, the one that led the Phillies to lock in on him.

"I remember that game," he said with a laugh. "I gave up a home run that probably still hasn't landed yet."

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Hector Neris proves prophetic, Phillies overcome plethora of adversity for best win of season

Hector Neris proves prophetic, Phillies overcome plethora of adversity for best win of season

ATLANTA — About 24 hours before the Phillies pulled off a come-from-behind win, their best of the season, Hector Neris stood in the visiting clubhouse at SunTrust Park and ended his interview by saying, "Tomorrow ... I got it tomorrow, for sure."

He proved prophetic, displaying the kind of short memory a closer needs, retiring the Braves in order in the bottom of the ninth after Cesar Hernandez's game-winning two-run single in the top half.

"You know it, papi," a beaming Neris said after picking himself and his teammates up. "I'm ready for that every day. Today I got the opportunity and I had to get it. Back to the rhythm again, back to a win. Protect the team."

The Phillies' 6-5 win knotted this important divisional series at a game apiece and did a good job of ridding the sour taste from their mouths after Friday's meltdown. In a way, it served as a reset button for the series, which will be determined Sunday afternoon.

This was a huge W in multiple ways. First off, the Phillies just don't have many victories like this in 2019. They were 1-23 when trailing after eight innings, have no walk-off wins and have watched their opponent walk it off five times. Saturday obviously was not a walk-off win but it was just as sweet. Momentum was gained by the Phillies and derailed for the Braves.

If you do believe in momentum in baseball, the Braves sure had it. They had won eight games in a row and have had the Phillies' number in Atlanta, beating them seven straight times at SunTrust Park. But Hernandez's big hit, which came after Scott Kingery singled to begin the ninth and Sean Rodriguez forced an errant throw on a sacrifice bunt, changed that.

"That was a really important win for our team. Wow. What a resilient group of guys," manager Gabe Kapler said. "There's a lot that went on in today's game that could have pushed us to not give the kind of effort that we gave. Really impressive, heartfelt win by our club, as a group, as a unit, as a team."

The Phillies could have folded after losing an early lead and losing two more starters to injuries. Jay Bruce left the game in the fourth inning with hamstring tightness and J.T. Realmuto exited an inning later after taking a foul ball to the groin. 

Bruce actually first felt the hamstring tightness three or four days ago but hid it because he didn't think it was too serious. When he couldn't score from first base on Kingery's two-run double in the third inning, he knew the hamstring was the reason why and he finally admitted the injury to the Phillies' coaching staff. Bruce will not play Sunday but doesn't think the hammy will sideline him for more than a couple days.

Realmuto felt nausea after taking a shot to the jewels. There was no immediate update on his condition. He has played a ton, starting every game in June and catching 105 straight innings before exiting Saturday's game. The Phillies had planned an off-day for him in the upcoming Nationals series but may have to move that up to Sunday.

The Phillies overcame the injuries and another rough start from Aaron Nola, who lasted just 4⅓ innings and again struggled with control. In the bigger picture, Nola's funk is a concern. He has a 4.89 ERA, has allowed 13 homers in 110 fewer innings than it took last season, and just isn't getting ahead of hitters. 

Nola was emphatic saying that his body and arm feel good. He is not hurt. He just isn't in a good place from a control standpoint. He needs to figure it out for this team to get where it wants to go, but the comeback win was at least some solace for him.

"To end their eight-game winning streak, that really mattered," Nola said. "It's a tough one for me again but to come out with a win like this is always good."

The Phillies still have not named a starter for Sunday's game. There are a few different options (see story). If they can find a way to pull out the finale, they'll be 5-1 against the Braves and just a half-game back in the division, even after Atlanta won 22 of its last 32.

"It was huge to win tonight because we want to keep people motivated and stay on top of our stuff," Hernandez said.

"Oh my gosh, what an answer," Bruce added. "That was awesome. Everything was kind of falling their way. Huge win to answer back like that. Kind of shows you what our team is capable of doing."

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Phillies 6, Braves 5: Scott Kingery keys uplifting win after 2 injuries and short start from Aaron Nola

Phillies 6, Braves 5: Scott Kingery keys uplifting win after 2 injuries and short start from Aaron Nola


ATLANTA — What was shaping up to be a second straight painful loss for the Phillies was instead an invigorating win.

After they lost two starters to injury (Jay Bruce, J.T. Realmuto) and watched their ace struggle through just 4⅓ innings, the Phillies fought back in the top of the ninth to come back and beat the Braves, 6-5. 

Scott Kingery, the star of the night for the Phillies, keyed the ninth-inning rally with a leadoff single. He went 3 for 3 with a two-run double and a walk and is hitting .347 on the season with a 1.058 OPS.

Braves closer Luke Jackson threw wide of first base on Sean Rodriguez's sacrifice bunt after Kingery began the ninth with a single. Cesar Hernandez followed with the decisive two-run single, and Hector Neris pitched a clean ninth for the save 24 hours after a nightmarish outing.

This was a big-time win. The Braves had won eight straight games and had all the momentum after walking the Phillies off Friday and coming back from an early deficit again Saturday. The Phillies made six straight outs in the seventh and eighth innings and looked like a defeated team.

Instead, they evened the series and go for the improbable series win tomorrow afternoon. At 39-31, the Phils are 1½ games behind the Braves in the NL East. The vibe of this series turned in a hurry.

What is up with Nola?

Walks, home runs, an extremely deliberate pace ... forget 2018, Nola right now isn't even the guy he was in 2017, when he had a mid-3.00s ERA.

Nola has a 4.89 ERA and has already allowed as many home runs in 15 starts as he allowed in 29 starts last season. He has the second-slowest pace in between pitches in all of baseball to Yu Darvish, and his control has been erratic. Nola has walked 4.0 batters per nine innings this season. Prior to this year, he walked 2.5 per nine.

Nola's season has had a very 2009 Cole Hamels vibe to it. 

The Phillies' only reliable starting pitcher this season has been Zach Eflin. That is a problem. This team might not be able to wait until mid- or late-July to add a difference-making starting pitcher.

More injuries

Bruce left the game in the fourth inning with left hamstring tightness, which likely occurred during his sprint around the bases on Kingery's two-run double. Bruce was called out at the plate on the play.

Jean Segura, Kingery and Odubel Herrera have all spent time on the IL this season with hamstring injuries.

In total, 15 different Phillies have been on the injured list this season. Somehow, six teams have had more players on the IL and 12 teams have had more player games lost to injury than the Phillies.

Bruce's injury could expedite Roman Quinn's return to the majors. Quinn was held out of a rehab game Saturday night as a precautionary measure after he was hit by a pitch on the shoulder Friday (see story).

In the fifth inning, Realmuto took a foul ball to the groin and was on the ground for close to five minutes. He was in visible pain the rest of the frame and exited an inning later.

The drop-off from Realmuto to Andrew Knapp is massive. Hopefully for the Phillies, this was just a one-night thing.

Scary moment

Braves lefty Sean Newcomb was removed from the game in the top of the third after being struck on the neck by a Realmuto line drive that left the bat at 102 mph.

Here's footage of the scary play.

Up next

The series concludes tomorrow afternoon at 1:20. The Phillies have not yet named a starter but will face tough righty Mike Foltynewicz, who is off to a slow start this season (1-5, 6.02).

More on the Phillies' options for Sunday's start here

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