Howard does his part, but Phillies can't help

Posted: July 07, 2012

On Friday afternoon, Ryan Howard plopped into the same chair he could not escape without crutches nine months earlier. He pulled on his red-pinstriped pants and sneakers without hesitation. He smiled.

"It's a ghost," Howard said. "It's not me. It's a figment of your imagination."

It was summer again because Howard was hitting cleanup and pointing his black bat toward Center City. Twice, the hulking first baseman reached base. Twice, he was stranded on second.

And when a porous Phillies bullpen inflicted more damage in a 5-0 loss to Atlanta, all Howard could do was watch helplessly, much like everyone else in this cursed season.

"Yeah," Howard said, "it's been a little while."

When he last played, a season of high hopes crashed on his left Achilles tendon. He returned Friday to a season on the brink. The only hope now is avoiding a fire sale.

Howard's debut was successful on a personal level, which represents a silver lining. He was 2 for 4 with a double and a single. He moved with a distinct hobble.

"There's probably going to be a small hitch in there, so get used to it," he said. "I'll try to make it through the best I can."

Charlie Manuel said there would initially be caution with his $125 million slugger. Howard will sit Saturday and start Sunday, the final day before the all-star break. Additionally, the manager is more inclined to use a pinch-runner and defensive replacement for Howard late in games if the situation dictates it.

"Once he can show he can play," Manuel said, "I probably won't."

Manuel had watched a majority of Howard's minor-league at-bats on video supplied by the team. He liked what he saw, but was willing to admit there was an unknown element. Howard played in seven minor-league games and appeared at first base in four of them. He played a full game in the field just once, on Thursday with triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Manuel's biggest curiosity had nothing to do with Howard's swinging.

"I'd say, just moving around, running the bases," Manuel said. "Being able to shift his legs at first base on defense. Watching him hit, it seems to me like he's using his back side well. I've seen his at-bats. He looks pretty good."

The first impression supported that observation. Howard's name was announced at 7:27 p.m., and he arrived at home plate to a standing ovation. He pulled his bat over his head, took a deep breath, and kicked the dirt in the batter's box.

He was facing a favorite target in Tim Hudson. In 63 career plate appearances against the veteran righty, Howard reached base 27 times with six home runs. He took the first pitch, a cutter, for ball one.

Howard's first swing was majestic, the kind of motion fans have long adored. His gait that carried him to second base was less than stately. But he made it there in one piece, and that qualified as progress.

"I just hit it," Howard said, "and ran like hell."

Howard has admitted he will not play at 100 percent strength until probably 2013. It will obviously affect his running and his defense. His power stroke had already experienced a sharp decline before the injury: Howard's slugging percentage dropped from .571 in 2009 to .488 in 2011. That must be monitored, too.

Phillies first basemen managed a .733 OPS in Howard's 84-game absence. That figure ranked ninth in the National League. The league average was .770. Howard's career OPS is .928.

He was asked if there is added pressure on his shoulders to save a season teetering toward irrelevancy.

"No, nothing more than this book bag on my back," he said. "I already know there are a lot of expectations. I know there is unspoken pressure. But my focus is just getting back in the groove of things and helping my team win."

His debut proved no one man can prevent a season-long malaise.


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @magelb.

 

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