Spencer Howard has been virtually unhittable since returning from the injured list.
The Phillies' No. 5 prospect tossed five hitless innings Sunday, striking out seven and issuing one walk, in Class A Advanced Clearwater's 4-0 loss to Florida at Spectrum Field.
Gameday box score
Howard made four starts before being shut down May 5 with shoulder soreness. Mechanically, he felt really good. While rehabbing, he had an epiphany, "two little things," he said, "to just keep it simple."
Left unsaid, those two little things are paying big dividends. In two starts since returning to Clearwater, Howard has allowed one hit and one walk with 14 whiffs in nine scoreless frames.
"In the bullpen before the game, I was hitting my spots," he said. "I was just trying to get adjusted to the heat. My hands sweat a lot, so I was getting warmed up to the weather."
There were sunny skies with tempatures in the lows 90s leading up to game time.
"My mechanics, I felt I could throw the ball where I wanted to, which is a good thing. It was just a battle with Mother Nature," he said.
Howard uses an age-old concoction to battle sweat between trips to the mound.
"I don't know where I heard it, but water and ammonia is what I use," he said, "I'll wipe my hands with it and it'll usually stay dry and be good for an inning."
The 2017 second-round pick retired the first 11 Fire Frogs, striking out the side in the third inning, before walking CJ Alexander on a 3-2 pitch with two outs in the fourth. Alexander was thrown out trying to steal second and Howard worked a 1-2-3 fifth.
The walk to Alexander, he said, "was kind of tough. It was a 1-2 curveball in the dirt. I thought he swung. Our whole bench thought he swung. [Catcher] Rodolfo Duran blocked it and threw to first ... but the ump said he didn't go. That at-bat was a bit frustrating."
It took only 11 pitches to set down the side in the third and in a scoreless game, Howard was happy to do his part to try to spur the Threshers' offense.
"A three-strikeout inning can get some momentum for the team," he said. "You hope the hitters can feed off it. It's just trying to do my part for the team, for the win. And it's nice to do those at-bats efficiently.
"I threw some pretty good changeups. The curveball wasn't really there, with the sweat, so I leaned heavy on the changeup."
In four starts before landing on the IL, Howard impressed with a 2.25 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 30 strikeouts over 20 innings.
The 22-year-old right-hander made two rehab starts in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, allowing three runs on four hits with two walks and eight strikeouts across 5 1/3 innings. Through six starts covering 29 innings with Clearwater, he has a 1.55 ERA and 0.76 WHIP, yielding 17 hits and five walks with 44 punchouts.
"I would definitely say efficiency was not my calling card before this season. My goal for the year was to attack hitters," he said. "Not to necessarily strike out hitters, but working with [Threshers pitching coach] Brad Bergesen, we wanted to force contact within three pitches or less."
2019 MiLB include
Through six starts, he's averaging 15 pitches per inning. On Sunday, he threw about 13 per inning -- 68 total, including 49 for strikes.
Florida took a 1-0 lead in the seventh when Braves No. 26 prospect Trey Harris grounded a single into left field to plate Andrew Moritz. The Fire Frogs broke open the game with a three-run ninth, highlighted by Harris' two-run homer.
Florida starter Hayden Deal nearly matched Howard, allowing two hits over five scoreless innings. He walked one, struck out four and lowered his ERA to 2.82, which ranks eighth in the Florida State League.