The baseball disappeared into a flower box above the 374-foot marker in left-center field, a landing spot that delayed an entire stadium's reaction. The fan held his souvenir, a Ryan Howard homer bashed against a left-handed pitcher, which prompted the meager crowd at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night to rise in melancholic unison.
This moment dripped with apathy, even a tinge of sadness. The electronic Liberty Bell replica did not ring until Howard neared third base in the second inning of a 2-1 win over Houston in 15 innings. Howard, who halted an 0-for-14 skid and a 22-inning Phillies scoring drought, can tease with powerful swings like this.
"Sometimes," Ryne Sandberg said, "the remedy is to face a left-handed pitcher where a left-handed hitter has to focus on staying up the middle to center field. Hopefully that goes a long way going forward."
When Tuesday bled into Wednesday, Howard delivered again. He singled through the shift to score Grady Sizemore at 12:14 a.m. to end the 5-hour, 5-minute game.
The Phillies have scored two runs in their last 36 innings. Those circumstances relegated a remarkable feat -- Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins achieved a new standard for infield longevity -- to just another footnote in a bland season. The three teammates started their 887th regular-season game together, the most in major-league history for any first base, second base, and shortstop trio.
That topped the 886-game plateau by Los Angeles' Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, and Bill Russell. Howard, Utley, and Rollins began their partnership Sept. 8, 2004, in the second game of a doubleheader at Atlanta. The Phillies won, 4-1.
A dogpile near the mound at Citizens Bank Park will forever mark their legacies, although the end is bitter. This season, marred by another underachieving and expensive roster, conjures a marriage that lasted too long.
Howard is one protagonist. He played for just the second time in seven games against a left-handed starter. He crushed a 79-mph Dallas Keuchel slider for the second-inning homer. His next three at-bats resulted in groundouts to second base. Two were for double plays. All three pitches put in play were fastballs.
Sandberg, ever since benching Howard for three games in late July amid talk of demoting Howard to part-time status, has softened his tone.
"Well, I didn't say it was going to be a platoon," Sandberg said. "I said it could be a possibility down the road. But I want the best for both players and for Ryan Howard to get going, for Darin Ruf to get at-bats, and also for 1/8Howard3/8 to do a little bit better job against left-handed pitching. It's a little bit of a process, but I'm looking to help two players."
Ruf started Tuesday in left field. Sandberg denied the front office dictated more playing time for Howard.
"No, the reason for the rest was for him to regroup and to make some adjustments, which he continues to search for, and continues to do," Sandberg said. "So hopefully he gets it going."
Howard batted fourth for the 93d time in 113 games. The manager dodged a question about whether he would drop Howard from his customary cleanup spot.
"He continues to make adjustments and look for a comfort zone at home plate, so that's what we need," Sandberg said. "We need him right in the middle of the lineup."
The lineup floundered in another impotent night Tuesday. There was little support for Kyle Kendrick's seven solid innings. Utley ended an 0-for-18 streak with a single in the sixth. Howard followed with an inning-ending double play.
Another rally with runners on first and second fizzled in the eighth. Howard slapped one toward Jose Altuve at second. He pivoted to start a crisp 4-6-3 double play. The game played between two hapless teams lingered into the night.
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