Inside the Phillies: Ryan Howard rewards Charlie Manuel's loyalty

Posted: September 21, 2012

NEW YORK - The Phillies are running out the infield pop-up now.

The baseball is descending, and there is a 99.9 percent chance it will end up being squeezed into a glove that sucks out the final breath of life from a team that has been battling uphill since arriving in spring training.

And still the Phillies keep running.

That's why Chase Utley played second base instead of third base in the second game of the Phillies' series against the New York Mets on Wednesday night.

That's why Juan Pierre, and not Darin Ruf, was in left field.

And that's why Ryan Howard keeps playing first base instead of Ruf, although you know just about everybody still watching back in Philadelphia was sure that one of the most prolific sluggers in baseball should not have gone to home plate with two outs and Utley on first base in the top of the ninth inning.

Fortunately for Howard and the Phillies, manager Charlie Manuel felt otherwise.

"He's more apt to hit a home run than anyone on our team," the manager said.

Yes, but Howard already was 0 for 3 with two strikeouts and the Mets had rookie lefthander Josh Edgin in the game. Howard went to the plate with a .163 overall average against lefties this season and a .000 batting average in his last 18 at-bats against them.

He knew it was even worse than that.

"I've been struggling, period," he said when asked about his struggles against lefthanders.

Two batters earlier, Manuel had opted to use Ty Wigginton instead of Ruf against Edgin. Wigginton struck out on four pitches, and you could feel the anger from Phillies fans as far as Queens.

Utley kept the game alive with an eight-pitch walk, and Manuel, who once pinch-hit for Jim Thome with the bases loaded, remained loyal to Howard by sending him to the plate against the lefty.

Howard took a slider for a called strike, then crushed a 93-m.p.h. fastball into the right-field seats for a two-out, two-run home run that made sure the Phillies' dim playoff hopes did not grow dimmer.

"That's Kobe Bryant right there," Pierre said to Howard after the Phillies' 3-2 victory kept them four games behind St. Louis for the second wild card. "You've got to get 27 outs. They got 26."

Howard was hitting .172 without a home run in September before his ninth-inning blast, and he admitted his frustration had reached an elevated level.

"I'm a competitor," he said. "I know I'm better than what it shows. It gets frustrating at times, and sometimes you go out there and try to do more than you're capable of doing. I'll be the first to tell you, I've gone out there and tried to do that a few times."

For the umpteenth straight day, Howard was a topic of conversation before the game, and Manuel confessed his concern.

"I'm concerned about Ryan, but at the same time I've known him a long time and I think he definitely can perform like he has [in the past]," Manuel said. "But especially the last month hasn't been real good for him."

Manuel said he is confident that Howard's power stroke can be restored, but acknowledged it will not be easy.

"He's going to have to work and he's going to have to get his swing back," the manager said. "Actually, we've got to work with him, but I don't mind that because that's what it is all about. I know it's still there. He's going to have to do a lot of work and we're going to have to spend some time with him."

At some point, Manuel indicated, the Phillies will require Howard to do extra work before the team arrives in spring training.

"He'll be right there close to Clearwater, and we can do some early work with him," Manuel said. "I haven't talked to him about that yet, but I will. I don't think it's a problem."

Howard lives just outside Clearwater, Fla.

You may think Manuel and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. should pull the plug on the team's long-shot postseason hopes, but it's no different from Jimmy Rollins' running out a pop-up.

Rollins is almost always right. The ball is almost always caught. That does not change the fact that you're supposed to run, and that's what the Phillies are doing now.

Manuel said after the game that even if the Phillies had lost Wednesday night and fallen five games behind the Cardinals, he would have gone with his best lineup Thursday. The manager is positive Howard is part of that lineup.

"How many at-bats does he have?" Manuel asked.

The number is 231.

"Yeah, he's got like 50 RBIs," the manager said. "You figure that out over 600 plate appearances, he's going to have 110, 120, or 130 RBIs, somewhere in there. He can find RBIs. He can be struggling and find them."

Contact Bob Brookover at Follow on Twitter @brookob.


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