Saying Howard has moved closer to the plate - which he admitted to during spring training - is probably oversimplifying things.
First and foremost, Howard appears to be more square to the pitcher. Although his stance is still slightly open, his front foot is closer to the inner edge of the batter's box than it has been in the past. Howard's knees also appear to be bent deeper, leading to a more defined crouch than in the past. His hands look closer to the strike zone, resulting in a bat head that is less flat and more erect.
So far, the changes have produced some positive results. In a win over the Astros on Saturday, Howard hit a line-single up the middle on a Wandy Rodriguez curveball or slider on the outer-third of the plate. On Sunday, his three-run home run to dead centerfield came on a belt-high fastball that looked to be just off the plate.
But hitting coach Greg Gross said the biggest reason for Howards's early success is that he's being more selective at the plate.
"I think the thing that shows up more are the [pitches] that he is taking," Gross said. "It's the ones that he's laying off while in a positive hitting position."
Four games is far too small a sample to make definitive judgments. And Howard's approach didn't appear to need a major overhaul. Although he finished 2010 with career lows in home runs (31), RBI (108) and slugging percentage (.505), he still hit .276 with an .859 OPS in a down offensive year throughout baseball. He also battled a sprained left ankle for the final 2 months of the regular season.
But Howard's walk rate has also declined over the last four seasons, from 16.5 percent of his plate appearances in 2007 to 9.5 percent in 2010. The Phillies are hopeful that the minor changes he has made will put him in a better position to be more selective.
"His vision of the strike zone is back where it was before," Gross said.
In the first inning, Jimmy Rollins dropped a perfect bunt to the left side of the infield to reach base with two outs. It was Rollins' first bunt single since June 16, 2009, when he laid one down against Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero at Citizens Bank Park.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said before the game that Chase Utley continues to make small steps in his recovery from the balky right knee that has sidelined him since the first week of spring training. The next step in Utley's progression is light jogging, although Amaro said there is no set plan on when he will begin . . . Mets pitcher Chris Young hit two singles in New York's six-run third inning. The last pitcher to have two hits in an inning was the Giants' Madison Bumgarner on Sept. 23, 2010. No Mets pitcher had ever had two hits in an inning . . Last night's official attendance: 45,365, the 127th straight sellout at CBP.