How do you pitch to Ryan Howard? Intentionally

Posted: April 02, 2007

The initial reactions are the best part, and perhaps the most telling.

How do you pitch Ryan Howard?

"What did I do last year?" Cincinnati Reds manager Jerry Narron said with a laugh. "Walk him three times intentionally?"

"Carefully," Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox said.

"You don't," Houston Astros manager Phil Garner said.

"Where do you start?" New York Mets lefthander Tom Glavine said.

Let's begin at last season, when Howard emerged as one of the most feared hitters in baseball. He hit .313 with 58 home runs and 149 RBIs to win the National League MVP in his first full season in the majors. He intentionally walked a team-record 37 times, with 32 of those coming after the all-star break.

He clearly earned respect as the season evolved. He became one of those special hitters that teams pitch around, a hitter opponents would rather put on base than watch beat them.

Narron intentionally walked Howard three times in a game Aug. 11 at Citizens Bank Park. It made sense, too. The Phillies had double-switched and had the pitcher hitting behind him. But in the bottom of the 14th inning, Narron intentionally walked Howard to load the bases with no outs to put the winning run on third base. The Phillies won in the 14th, 6-5.

Narron would do it again.

"I would have died if he had beaten me," he said. "He wasn't going to beat us."

Garner intentionally walked Howard to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning in a tie game Sept. 4 at the Bank.

He also would do it again.

"He was on such a roll," Garner said. "He's a guy that was doing all those things at the moment that just kill you. What you end up doing is trying to take him out of the ball game. Don't let him get in a position where he can beat you, because that's what he was doing at the time. I might pitch to him early in the season. Last season I would have. This year I don't know. We'll see who's hitting behind him and how he's doing. Gee whiz, the guy was killing balls last year."

Numerous things will go into a manager's decision on whether to pitch to Howard this season.

What is the situation? Early? Late? Comfortable lead? Close game? Tie game?

How is Howard hitting? If he's hot, they will be more likely to pitch around him. If he's deep in a slump, they probably will pitch to him.

Key, too, will be how the batter is hitting behind him. Lineup protection is overblown depending on whom is asked, but managers often cite it as part of their decision-making process. But it seems a righthanded pitcher is likely to pitch around Howard, not because Pat Burrell is hitting behind him, but because Burrell is a righthanded hitter and Howard is lefthanded. Howard was intentionally walked 34 times by righthanded pitchers and three times by lefthanders.

"You have to strategically put things together in the latter part of the game," Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. "Then you get to that point obviously when you have to pick and choose. And if you run into situations where there's no place to put this guy and you have to deal with him . . . let's face it, guys like this who have become the offensive player that he's become, it's somewhat of a crapshoot. Yeah, you can bring the lefty in to face him. You can do all these different things. But there is no actual guarantee as to what the results are going to be because he's not the least bit shy about hitting off righthanders or lefthanders."

Howard struck out 181 times last season, but pitchers and managers consider him an incredibly tough out.

"Given the fact of what he's done in his brief career, it's increasingly difficult to get away with any mistake, especially in that park," Braves righthander John Smoltz said. "He's already in a category of Albert Pujols. You've got to be careful. He's a game changer. I've seen no signs of him being impatient and swinging too much, which is unfortunate."

"It's tough because he doesn't swing at bad pitches," Glavine said. "He makes good contact. He can hit it out from foul line to foul line and he can hurt you in any part of the park. You can't say, 'I'm going to pound him in,' because he'll make adjustments. You can't pitch him the same way every time because he'll make adjustments. And even if there's one area you think you can attack, you better not make a mistake there because he'll hit it out of the park."

Garner thinks they have a better idea of how to pitch to Howard this season. He said every hitter has his weakness. But Garner added that it's difficult to pitch to Howard because he can hit the pitch away out of the park.

So what do you do when a hitter can handle the inside and outside pitch?

"You walk him," Garner said with a smile. "It's pretty easy."


Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.

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