Bill Conlin | Phils put Howard in good spot to win

Posted: March 30, 2007

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Ryan Howard led all Grapefruit and Cactus League hitters last year with 11 homers. Had there been Papaya, Mango and Kiwi Leagues, he would have led them, as well. Then he went north and led both the juiced and unjuiced worlds with 58 homers.

Charlie Manuel was so impressed by the best Phillies spring training power performance since Dick Allen in 1964 he backed off an organizational mantra that the first baseman might platoon against tougher lefthanders - whoever they may have been in this pitching-poor era.

Nor did the cautious skipper plug Howard immediately into the cleanup spot that was his destiny from the day the Phillies signed him in the fifth round of the 2001 draft for a $230,000 bonus. The Phillies' No. 1 pick that June day was Gavin Floyd and the high-school righthander set the Phillies back a staggering $4.2 million. Staggering summarizes a career where the White Sox are trying to locate a fastball velocity that might have never been there in the first place. But Floyd is a bedtime story for a night when you're really trying to scare hell out of the kids. He is the Keyser Sose of the amateur draft. Every scout should have Gavin's picture in his wallet right next to his organization credit card.

Some people wonder if the Phillies would have stumbled to that 10-14 April if Manuel had plugged Howard into the No. 4 spot Opening Day and just left him there. I didn't realize how long it took Charlie to pull the trigger until I ran through the box scores yesterday.

In that stumbling April, Howard batted in the No. 6 spot 15 times. And in back-to-back games against immortal Nationals lefty Billy Traber and Marlins southpaw Scott Olsen, he batted seventh behind David Bell. A little bit of diss, a little bit of dat . . .

The 2005 Rookie of the Year and 2006 MVP didn't bat fourth until May 17, and that was just for one game. It was early July before Manuel wrote his name

into the No. 4 spot for good. His new cleanup hitter pounded the written-off Phillies back into the wild-card race. Part of the reason for Manuel's reluctance to make the obvious, necessary, move was that Pat Burrell, the

incumbent cleanup man and

second highest-paid Phil behind traded Bobby Abreu had a solid if unspectacular spring. April and May were his two best months. Pat didn't crash and burn until after the All-Star break.

So, here they are a year later, their roles reversed. Despite an exhibition-game body of work that veered between aimless and clueless, Ryan Howard is "The Man," as well he should be.

Burrell is the guy they hope will keep Howard from being walked 150-plus times, the No. 5 hitter pro tem. How much more pro than tem will be up to him.

The protection issue has been badly misconstrued. If Howard should happen to be walked 198 times, which is what happened to Barry Bonds the year after his 73 all-time homer HiGH, he would contend for the batting

title. Bonds batted .370 and had an insane .570 on-base percentage. More important, he led the Giants to a pennant. His dad

Bobby or even one of those doddering Ball Dudes who guard the lines in AT & T Park (then Pac Bell) could have hit No. 5. They were going to walk Barry even if he had been "protected" by Willie Mays in his prime.

The baseball thing here is that the No. 5 spot in the order is reserved for a significant RBI man. When the big guy is in a slump - and he might have come out of a 1-for-23 in Bradenton yesterday with two hits against the

Pirates, including a mammoth homer that cleared a pond behind the fence in right - you look for big production from the five hole. Was it foreshadowing when Burrell followed Howard's ICBM with a tracer down the line in left? That's the kind of thunder and lightning it will take to mask the jello-shaky pitching situation, where only excellent springs by Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer have kept the

Bandwagon from being pushed into Clearwater Bay.

Well, if spring training is just practice for millionaires and not to be taken seriously by anybody but the accountants, the Phillies are certainly in the right division. Nobody can accuse four of the five National League East teams of false hustle.

Before the 1973 season, rookie manager Danny Ozark said you could cover the six NL East teams with a blanket. Well, five out of six wasn't bad . . . The Mets, Pirates, Cards, Expos and Cubs went into the final weekend all mathematically alive.

Stand on your head for a

similar grouping in the MAAN (Much Ado About Nothing)

National League spring-training standings: Marlins 12-16; Nationals 11-15; Phillies 11-16; Mets 11-20.

Those are four of the five worst NL records. Amazingly, the Marlins, Nationals, Phillies and 11-16 Pirates all played to ties yesterday.

Let "The Great Race" begin. *

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