The lesson is one that anybody who has watched the Phillies over the previous 7 years should already know: Even when Howard struggles, he still is a formidable presence in the middle of the order. And that's why manager Charlie Manuel said last week that he is feeling better about his roster than he did a year ago.
"I feel much better because we've got Utley and Howard," Manuel said. "We've got our three and four hitters."
Utley would be Chase Utley, the second baseman who has spent most of the first halves of the last two seasons on the disabled list recovering from a chronic knee condition. This year, he is set to start the season in the lineup for the first time since 2010, and he is coming of a spring in which he hit five home runs and posted a .273/.368/.545 batting line in 66 at-bats.
Howard was even better, posting a .338/.368/.663 batting line and seven home runs in 80 at-bats. Two weeks into Grapefruit League play, when Howard finally got a day off, it was clear that the only lingering effects from his injury was a slight hitch in his gait.
"First of all, I felt like we had to get him in shape playing in games," Manuel said. "I picked a time and how much we wanted to play him. He had to play and get over some soreness and some things like that."
Now, the Phillies are hoping that the spring success carries over into the regular season. Historically, April has been Howard's least productive month. He owns a career .257/.349/.466 batting line in the month.
In 2008, he hit just .172 in April. In 2010 and 2011, he combined for just 10 home runs in 195 at-bats. Still, Howard is convinced that by the end of 2013, his numbers will be close to what they were before he crumpled on his way out of the batter's box in Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series.
"I know it's in there," said Howard, who averaged 39 home runs, 128 RBI and a .265/.349/.529 batting line from 2008-11. "I just have to let the inner me come out at the plate and be relaxed. I have to trust myself, trust my ability, and let it fly."