Ruf inserted into Phillies' lineup for Ryan

Posted: July 25, 2014

ELEVEN MONTHS ago, to the surprise of many at the timing if not at the actual event itself, Charlie Manuel walked out of Citizens Bank Park for the final time with his to-go lunch bag in his hand and his vacated manager's office behind him.

Any team in any sport that fails to field a winning product for multiple seasons in a row - the Phillies are well on their way to season No. 3 - will endure changes. Some are subtle, others can shake the very foundation of the franchise.

Manuel's departure as manager last August falls under the latter. The day the Phillies move on from Ryan Howard will surely qualify for that designation, too.

Although it was one day in a 162-game season, it sure felt like something bigger was happening when Howard's name was missing from the starting lineup yesterday afternoon.

Howard is mired in a monthlong slump in a season of slumps.

In the last month, he has two extra-base hits in 23 games and 100 plate appearances. On Tuesday night, he came to the plate twice with a chance to end the game, with a sac fly in the ninth or a base hit in the 11th, and failed both times, drawing ballpark-wide boos.

With San Francisco lefthander Madison Bumgarner slotted to start last night, manager Ryne Sandberg started Darin Ruf in place of Howard at first base. Ruf arrived from Triple A less than 24 hours before Sandberg put together the lineup.

"I know what [Howard] can do," Sandberg said. "I've seen him for 100 games [this year]. I know what he can do. I think it's important to see what a guy like Darin Ruf can do also, going forward."

Sandberg didn't say the word platoon, but he didn't have to, either. Howard's lack of production and the team's need to see what young players like Ruf (and later this season, Maikel Franco) are capable of doing is important for a losing team with an eye on winning more in 2015 and beyond.

Howard entered yesterday hitting .224 with 15 home runs and 60 RBI in 97 games.

Howard's RBI total is somewhat misleading, since he has also come to bat with a player in scoring position in 116 of his at-bats this season, more than any other player in baseball. More telling are his .377 slugging percentage, a startling, near-200 point drop from his .571 in 2009, and his .682 OPS, which ranks 126th out of 160 qualifying major league hitters this season.

Howard has been declining as a hitter for 5 years, but the pace of that decline has picked up considerably since he ruptured his left Achilles' in 2011. Howard is hitting .236 with an .824 OPS and 40 home runs in 248 games since returning 2 years ago this month; he has struck out 312 times in 917 at-bats.

CSNPhilly reported yesterday that the Phillies' front office has discussed the possibility of buying out the remainder of Howard's contract after the season, which is somewhat unsurprising given his decrease in production.

Before batting practice yesterday, Howard was asked if a change of scenery would be beneficial at some point in the near future.

"I'm not thinking about that," Howard said, with the trade deadline looming. "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but for me, the easiest thing to do when times get hard or things don't go your way is quit. I think it really shows what kind of character you have - and, again, I'm not talking about anybody in this clubhouse, just talking in general . . . For me, you work through it . . . And once you do work through it, you become that much stronger."

Sandberg has given Howard ample time to work through his struggles this year, his first, healthy season in 3 years. When asked what more Howard could do to regain even a semblance of his old production, Sandberg was nearly at a loss for words, other than to suggest he had to continue to make adjustments.

Howard was both candid and honest during a near-10 minute interview with reporters yesterday afternoon.

"There's always expectations - it's easy for people to put expectations on you because they're not the ones going out there and doing it," Howard said. "I have expectations for myself. And yeah, it's been a disappointing year. It's been a disappointing year for me, period.

"There have been a lot of highs and lows. A lot of frustration. There's frustration from the fans, frustration, period. I have my own frustrations as well. You know, it's really - you try to stay positive. For me. I know people are going to put a lot on either how much money I make, or what I'm doing on the field, this or that or whatever, but at the end of the day, you go out there and try, you try to do what you can."

Trying only goes so far if it isn't followed by consistent production. And Howard's position on the field just so happens to be one (the only?) where the Phillies have younger, viable options to try out in Ruf and, eventually Franco.

Howard is owed a minimum of $60 million over the next 3 years after this season, so he's untradeable. Even if the Phillies decided to eat nearly every guaranteed dollar, it's not easy to find a team looking for a hitter in serious decline, one who has battled injuries that make him a poor baserunner, and one who is probably best suited to be a designated hitter.

Howard turns 35 in November. He's younger than Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz, the three other remaining cornerstone position players who remain from the World Series teams.

Despite his contract, however, and because of his lack of production, he could very well be the next of those four to move on from Philadelphia.

Yesterday afternoon, Howard was asked if talk of losing regular playing time would translate to this being the low point in his 11-year big-league career.

"Is this is a low point? This is baseball," Howard said. "And I know a lot of people might misconstrue this comment, but baseball is a game. Yeah, I get paid a lot of money to play it, but it's a game. You go out to the field, you see little kids, it's a game. You have to keep things in perspective.

"You know, what I'm doing out here, I've got a beautiful wife, a great son, a baby on the way. And you have to take a look at life. Look at it for what it is. I enjoy playing baseball, I love playing baseball, I want to be the best that I can be, and go out and compete on a regular basis. But as far as my career is concerned, you have good years and you have off years. The year is not over yet."

But with decreased playing time likely in the season's final 2 months, it's unlikely Howard can salvage 2014.

"It's also about wins and losses here, when the game starts, it's about winning the game," Sandberg said. "It's about being productive, chipping in, doing the part, doing something to help win the game. If that means playing someone else there, and there's production right away - more production - that's trying to win a baseball game."

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21


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