Spencer Howard has proven to be a prototypical strikeout pitcher during his brief career. The 22-year-old took that to a whole new level Tuesday.
Philadelphia's No. 5 prospect fanned a career-high 11 over 5 2/3 innings and Class A Advanced Clearwater scratched across a run to edge Florida, 1-0, at Spectrum Field. Howard yielded four hits and did not walk a batter during his 84-pitch effort, eclipsing his personal best of 10 strikeouts -- achieved twice last year with Class A Lakewood.
Gameday box score
Facing the Fire Frogs for the second consecutive start, Howard worked around a leadoff double by Riley Unroe in the top of the first inning before retiring 11 of 12 -- seven via the strikeout. The right-hander surrendered singles to Unroe in the third and Braves No. 9 prospect William Contreras in the fourth before whiffing the side in the fifth. He induced a pair of groundouts to open the sixth before allowing a base hit to Atlanta's No. 29 prospect Jefrey Ramos, which put an end to his evening.
"Facing them for the second straight start gave me an idea of what to do out there," Howard said. "I've actually kept the same type of mind-set my last three outings, but I know [Florida] hitters like to swing early, so I got my off-speed working early and pitched backwards. When they changed their approach later in the game, I started going heavier with my fastball."
Through four starts, Howard sports a 2.25 ERA and a 30-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 frames, which runs parallel with his career numbers. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound hurler has averaged 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 36 starts as a professional, although he's coming in under five frames per start since moving to full-season competition last year.
"That's something I personally need to get better with," Howard said of extending his starts. "I need to try and get a few more three-pitch outs. As a starter, you want and need to go as deep into games as possible. I generally get into a groove as the game progresses. And at that point, getting strikeouts or the ball being put in play early [in the count] doesn't matter as much."
Philadelphia's second-round pick in the 2017 Draft had little trouble adjusting to full-season competition in 2018 after beginning his career with Class A Short Season Williamsport the year before. Howard won nine games and posted a 3.78 ERA while striking out 147 over 112 innings with Lakewood. He put a capper on his breakout season by becoming the first BlueClaw to throw a postseason no-hitter when he blanked Kannapolis last Sept. 7. The 1-0 win secured Lakewood's spot in the South Atlantic League Championship Series and also earned the Cal Poly Luis San Luis Obispo product a MiLBY for Top Performance of 2018.
"One thing I learned coming off last year was how long the season really is," Howard said. "It's not so much physical but mental. No matter how much success you have or how bad you're doing, there's time to make adjustments and learn. I'm a lot more even-keeled this season and much of that comes from experiencing last year. I'm just looking to be consistent, stay healthy and keep getting better."
2019 MiLB include
Grant Dyer (1-1) surrendered a hit over 1 1/3 innings in relief of Howard before Jonathan Hennigan locked down his third save by fanning four over two perfect frames.
Phillies No. 18 prospect Nick Maton doubled in the lone run in the sixth.
Howard needed to be on point against Florida since Hayden Deal tossed 5 1/3 hitless innings before stumbling in the sixth. The 24-year-old allowed a run on four hits and a walk with five strikeouts while tying his career high of seven frames.
Deal (1-1) has a 1.50 ERA through his first four starts for the Fire Frogs.
"It's a lot more fun to be in games like this," Howard admitted. "You try to be locked in no matter what the score is, but there are times you'll lapse. If you're winning big or losing big, it happens. But for me, close games are a lot more fun to pitch in and that was the case tonight."