"With this being my first real, actual game this year where it counts for something, being able to get into these situations, being able to work in these situations is big," Howard said later. "It was fun to be a part of it and get back into game-on-the-line situations."
The last time he was here at FirstEnergy Park, Howard stayed for just one night, going 1-for-3 with a double before deeming his sprained ankle healthy enough to return to the Phillies. That was 2010. This time around, the first baseman won't be going anywhere fast. He certainly wasn't on Thursday night, his surgically repaired left foot still in obvious need of the muscle memory and strength it will take to play regularly in the major leagues.
Howard's 2-for-4 performance for the Phillies' low-Class A affiliate was more about symbolism than significance. It was the official start of the final leg of his journey back, and little more. In his first three plate appearances, he hit three routine ground balls to the same location, just to the right of second base, up the middle of the over-shift that he is so accustomed to facing. Two went for singles, one went for an out. His night ended with a strikeout against a lefty reliever: a slider for a called first strike, a slider in the dirt, then two fastballs that prompted swings-and-misses for a strikeout.
But the only result that really mattered was the one that left Howard smiling while standing on the field after the game as the BlueClaws auctioned off the jersey he wore (it fetched $4,900). The Phillies and their first baseman seem past the point of worrying about a significant setback in the tendon itself. Last night, Howard had little trouble with the various explosive movements that he needed to perform: sprinting out of the batter's box on three ground balls, scrambling back to first base just steps from second on a long fly-out to rightfield, running on a 3-2 pitch.
"I'm not worried about my Achilles," he said. "It's just getting back into game situations, flow of the game, offense, defense."
Now that the formalities are over, the real focus will turn to the day-to-day progression of Howard's baseball mechanics. His gait has yet to return to normal. Although it is noticeable, the effect probably isn't significant enough to label a limp. His straight line speed is lacking — on one of his singles, he reached first base just as a runner who had been on second base was approaching home — but all of that is to be expected. Howard even joked about it on Wednesday, telling reporters not to expect many stolen bases.
"The running portion was the biggest thing, and it felt pretty good," he said. "I didn't really think about it. The adrenaline kicked in on a few plays. The ball that [Duffy] hit to the wall where I went down to second and had to get back to first felt really good. It felt really good having to run back real quick, slide, pop-up slide. It felt good."
Really, the next 20 days will be all about Howard playing his way back into baseball shape while regaining the timing he will need to drive the ball. He will start at first base on Friday. He says he feels ready.
It is still too early to tell what to expect out of Howard once he returns. But the return has begun.
Contact David Murphy at email@example.com