Spencer Howard and the Phillies
On a day full of anticipation, the Phillies floundered and dropped a pair of contests to the division-rival Braves at Citizens Bank Park. The bullpen coughed up the first game, a 5-2 loss, while the Braves jumped on top-prospect Spencer Howard in an 8-0 shutout in Game 2.

Pitching wasn't the lone issue for the Phils though on Sunday; combined, the Phillies collected just seven hits on the day and finished 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

Velasquez pitched well to open Game 1 tossing four scoreless innings, but he ran into some trouble in the fifth when he surrendered a leadoff single. Deolis Guerra came in as relief and served up a two-run shot to Ronald Acuna Jr. Later in the frame, Adam Morgan yielded a three-run double to Adam Duvall.

The Phils' bullpen combined to surrender four runs on six hits and a walk over three innings of work.

The attention turned to Howard making his debut in Game 2, but the 24-year-old righty wasn't sharp surrendering four runs on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings. He did, however, show glimpses into why he's one of the most highly touted prospects in baseball.

"For his first start, I thought he did pretty good," said manager Joe Girardi. "He was able to throw strikes; the first two guys get on and he's able to not give up a run and didn't fall apart ... I thought he handled it pretty well."

Before Sunday, Howard last pitched in a game at the Phils' alternate training site at Lehigh Valley on July 31. He did, however, pitch a simulated game earlier in the week, but it's not the same as facing live hitters in a game-setting.

"I was hoping for a complete-game shutout," Howard said. "That's what everybody would dream about. But just being able to compete at the highest level again, a dream come true. It's just exciting to be out there and face an All-Star lineup"

With Velasquez and Howard both capable of starting on Friday, Girardi has a decision to make regarding the No. 5 spot in the rotation. For now, he's leaning on the veteran, but that may change.

"Right now, my plans are [for] Vinny to make that start," Girardi said. "It's just because we haven't talked about it, right? We didn't come into today and say we were going to make a change in the rotation. We didn't come in and say that. We said we're going to evaluate every day what's best for our team.

"I'm sure we will continue to talk about it, what we do and how we have the best makeup of a pitching staff. There have been no decisions made at this point, but we'll continue to hash it out."

The offensive struggles
Through 10 games, the bats have been inconsistent for the Phils. The club has the best BB% (12.9%) and K% (17.2%), rank third in OBP (.332), yet are in the middle of the pack in batting average (.229) and slugging (.402). Toss in a putrid .194 batting average with runners in scoring position (2nd worst) and you can see why the club is struggling to score runs.

Rhys Hoskins, Andrew McCutchen, and Scott Kingery are hitting a combined .143 over the last seven days.

Monday's finale
The Phillies turn to righty Aaron Nola in the series finale on Monday aiming for a series split. Nola struck out a career-high 12 batters in his last outing against the Yankees. The Braves counter with lefty Sean Newcomb who is sporting a 6.57 ERA through three starts.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @PGordonPBR

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