By Sam Bush
The Phillies’ core may be old but it is not ready for the rocker yet, and Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins (above photo) and A. J. Burnett proved that on Saturday night at the Bank.
Unlike Marlon Byrd’s three-run blast Friday, Howard’s opposite-field homer didn’t go to waste as the Phillies bounced back with an emphatic, 7-2 win over Washington.
Burnett continued to make a bid to be the national spokesperson for thriving in life with an inguinal hernia, if there were such a group. If there isn’t, he should make it up, because in four starts since getting that diagnosis he has allowed only three earned runs in 27 2/3 innings (0.98 ERA). In this one he carried a no-hitter into the fourth inning and only a solo home run by Adam LaRoche with one out in the sixth busted up his shutout bid.
“We came out swinging,” said Burnett, who improved to 2-1 with a 2.06 ERA in seven starts and moved ahead of Hall of Famer Jim Bunning into 52nd place on the career strikeout list (2,245). “Any time you can get a couple early, it helps you settle in and not worry too much. Just throw strikes and what happens, happens.
“You know, I always said I’m not here for my numbers. But I kind of lied when it comes to that one thing (strikeouts). Wins and losses you can’t really control that, you can’t control your ERA, but I do take pride in my strikeouts. So that’s pretty cool.”
Rollins had four singles and scored two runs on the night, as the Phillies (14-14) bounced back after scoring just six runs in their previous three games. “The old man swung the bat pretty good today,” Burnett said of Rollins, whose average jumped to .272.
Burnett might have gone one more inning if not for a 24-minute rain delay that added just enough down time to his respite after the sixth to convince Ryne Sandberg to turn to his bullpen. This time the beleaguered relievers needed nine outs while holding a 7-1 lead, and although Mario Hollands gave up a solo home run in the seventh, that was the only rough patch for him, Adams and Antonio Bastardo.
The tone was set by Howard in the first. After Rollins singled and Chase Utley walked against Washington starter Tanner Roark, Howard got a fastball over the plate and drove it on a line into the left-center field seats for his sixth home run of the season.
It continued what has been a solid start to the season for Howard, who even in his best years wasn’t the quickest out of the gate. Yet he finished the day batting .255 with 17 RBIs and an .806 OPS. Howard isn’t among the top 10 first basemen in terms of OPS, but he isn’t far from there. And he is ahead of All-Star staples Chris Davis, Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer and Prince Fielder in that category.
Unlike 2012, when Howard returned from his reconstructed Achilles’ tendon surgery clearly less than fully healed, and unlike 2013, when his knee quickly deteriorated once the season started, this year Howard seems to be building sharpness and dexterity. He made a couple of strong plays in the field Saturday night that a few weeks ago would have seemed unlikely.
“It’s still kind of a game of catch-up for me,” Howard said, “because I’ve really been out for the last year, year-and-a-half, two years. But I’m just taking it day by day and continuing to progress and take it as it comes.”
“There’s no question (Howard is getting sharper) on the defensive side of it,” Sandberg said. “And he’s a threat to pop one or make something happen at the plate, both against right-handed and left-handed pitching.”
Saturday night, it helped that the Phils kept the heat on even after that three-run outburst in the first. Cody Asche smoked a solo homer to right in the second inning, Carlos Ruiz pounded an RBI double off the wall in the fourth and Byrd added a two-run double in the fifth to give Burnett a huge cushion.
“We got the early lead, and A.J. threw great,” Howard said. “We came through in situations tonight.”