Howard Hurts So Good

Ryan Howard's sore left ankle and heel are slowing him down.
Ryan Howard's sore left ankle and heel are slowing him down. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: September 07, 2011

HE STRIKES out a ton. He struggles against lefties. He makes $20 million this year, is owed $125 million for the 5 years after that and at 31, his home-run pace is already at a decline.

OK, we got all that out of the way. Now for a 6-4, 242-pound dose of reality. Ryan Howard also has 31 home runs this season and has knocked in 108 runs and leads the National League in game-winning runs batted in and go-ahead runs batted in. This is in stark conflict with an oft-stated assertion and general assumption that he never hits when it counts, but the curse of every electric slugger, it seems, is that reality and perception are further apart than Joe West and the rule book.

And so it was Monday night, when Howard pulled up gingerly at third after Hunter Pence doubled down the rightfield line, that a local broadcaster chided the big guy for not running hard enough or fast enough, for not scoring on the play. The impression left was that he was slow but not that slow, that in a game in which his team had a healthy lead, a game in which Cliff Lee was Cliff Lee, he lollygagged it a bit.

The reality? Howard's firsts-to-thirds have always been surprisingly fast given his size, but the guy's left ankle and heel have been cranky for a good month, a condition manager Charlie Manuel has described as bursitis.

Howard's diagnosis?

"Hankle," he said before before the Phillies' rain-delayed 6-3 win over the Braves last night. "I think that's what it's called."

He played in his 135th game last night, Howard did. With a little luck and a lot of ice, heat and stretching, he will eclipse 140 games played for the sixth consecutive season. Resilient is a word you rarely hear when the man is discussed, yet for any player, and particularly one of his size, his durability has been remarkable.

"I try, man," Howard said when I mentioned this last night. "Unless I'm in the hospital or whatever, I try to be out there when I can."

More reality. Just having him out there is crucial to a lineup that has no other hitter with more than 20 home runs, a lineup of recurring power outages due to injury and age. Before Pence arrived, Raul Ibanez had the second highest home run total for the Phillies. These days, Ibanez is a platoon player. Jimmy Rollins, sidelined again, is taking his time returning from a groin. And Chase Utley, suddenly hot again with a first-inning home run last night, remains an enigma.

Look, I get it. Any friend or family member who has been in my presence when I turn fan with a beer in hand will tell you that I am not always this rational. Anticipation, the comedian Lewis Black has joked, is always the best part of the night, a point when "All the moments that lead up to the moment are truly the best moments.

"But," he says, "the moment is reality.

"And reality always kind of sucks."

Familiarity breeds contempt and no amount of deeds, big or small, will ever cure that. Despite his "hankle," Howard made a spectacular barehanded catch in that same game Monday night, hit a late home run, reached base four times - and struggled mightily as he ran the bases.

It was noticeable again in the first inning last night, Howard's two-out jaunt from second on Raul Ibanez' soft single to center looking like a slowed-down video.

It was even more noticeable in the sixth, when Howard lumbered from first to third on Pence's double, then chugged his way home when Tim Hudson threw a wild pitch.

"I can definitely feel it when I'm trying to run around the bases," he said. "Sometimes throughout the game it will kind of stiffen up a bit."

So he will slip into the clubhouse for some quick stretching. If he has time, a little ice, a little heat. Some days are better than others, he said. Hurricane Irene gave him a couple of days of relief.

"Running . . . or even when I'm walking," he said. "Like if you see me when I get up from here and start walking. It will take me a little bit for it to get loose . . . It all varies. Like this morning I woke up, it was a bit of an issue. Then I came in and did my stuff and it loosened up."

He missed nearly a month of baseball last year with a sprained left ankle. He is trying to make sure he doesn't miss the most important month this year. It's why these games against the Braves and Brewers are important, why we should admire Howard's painful efforts out there, no matter how painful it is to sometimes watch.

Twenty dollars, $20 million, at this point of the season it doesn't matter. It's about those moments when reality doesn't suck, when a Howard plate appearance disappears over a wall or even beats the shift and the moment becomes a best moment. Again.

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