Phillies' Howard feels he's ready for return to form

A slimmer Ryan Howard, taking batting practice in Clearwater, said his swing is almost where he wants it to be.
A slimmer Ryan Howard, taking batting practice in Clearwater, said his swing is almost where he wants it to be. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 17, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The first four words from Ryan Howard on Saturday were fatalistic. Optimism flowed from a cafeteria table at Bright House Field over the next 18 minutes - Howard wants to play 162 games; he believes he can hit 58 home runs again; two healthy knees will push him to conquer lefthanded pitching. But, in the beginning, Howard faced a dozen reporters and sighed.

"Same stuff," he said, "another year."

The questions for Howard, the Phillies' $125 million first baseman, are identical this spring because 2013 was another lost season, like 2012. He preached health and improved conditioning - Howard said he weighs between 240 and 250 pounds, a noticeable reduction - and acted as if a renaissance at age 34 from Achilles tendon and meniscus injuries would not shock the baseball world.

"You all keep asking the questions," Howard said. "If you don't ask the question, then I don't have to answer it and people don't have to continue to be skeptical about it. It's a matter of just going out there and letting it do what it does."

A year and one day earlier, at the same table in the same room, Howard said: "I know it's in there. . . . I have to trust myself, trust my ability, and let it fly."

Last season was considered progress from 2012, albeit trivial, because Howard played in nine more games (80 to 71) while his rate statistics (batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage) were all higher. Still, Howard's .784 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) was 131 points lower than his career average.

Better results are required in 2014. Howard has never played for Ryne Sandberg, and while the manager is willing to defer to the franchise cornerstone, his loyalty to Howard does not run as deep as Charlie Manuel's.

Sandberg said he would like Howard to play at least 140 games. But he did not eliminate the idea of an eventual platoon at first base should Howard's problems persist against lefties.

"In the perfect world, he hits righthanders and is effective and does some damage against lefthanded pitching," Sandberg said. "Now I get somebody else in there, possibly a righthanded bat, to give him a day off. Now if I'm proven differently, then I make an adjustment to get some production.

"He needs to make some adjustments. . . . If there's some constant struggles and I need to make a change, I mean that's for the betterment of the team. But I want it the other way. I want him to hit everybody and be a presence in the middle of that lineup."

Howard's .604 OPS vs. lefthanders since 2011 ranks 202d out of 213 qualified hitters. He does not fear being reduced to a platoon player.

"Why would I think about it? That's negative," Howard said. "If I think negative, if I think I can't hit lefties, I might as well not go out there at all."

Howard stressed the positive, as he did last spring.

"I've got two legs," Howard said. "Basically I've been playing on one leg. I'm not one to make excuses; I try to go out there and go as hard as I can, even if it's one leg or one toe. . . . My swing is coming back to where I want it to be."

Howard appeared in 14 games in the first 14 days of last spring's schedule. Manuel demanded Howard play himself into baseball shape. The first baseman was not fond of the plan, and he questioned it again Saturday. He said the pain in his left knee, which resulted in surgery to repair a torn meniscus in July, began last spring. (The Achilles tear in October 2011 was also in his left leg.)

When asked about his workload for this spring, Howard said the Phillies will "watch what we're doing, get my work in, and not necessarily overdo it." Sandberg said he would not replicate Manuel's plan because Howard is better conditioned. He weighed 260 pounds last July.

"I can see he already is in better shape than he was last year, by far," Sandberg said. "He got some weight off. His mobility is better. He's stronger and able to use his whole body up there."


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

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