Howard takes first step toward redemption
Phillies slugger takes first batting practice since Achilles injury
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard holds the unpleasant distinction of being the last man standing as the Phillies were eliminated from the postseason in 2010 and '11.
Actually, Howard wasn't even standing when he made the final out in last October's National League Division Series loss to St. Louis. As the Cardinals celebrated, Howard, after tapping a weak grounder to second, lay on the ground between home plate and first base in agonizing pain from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
The year before, the slugger looked at a called third strike from Giants closer Brian Wilson as San Francisco won the NL pennant.
For Howard, those two last outs are postseason moments he'd just as soon forget. So would the Phils.
"It sucks. I'm not going to lie," Howard said Wednesday as he talked about recovering from his injury that will probably keep him out of the lineup until at least mid-May. "I know how it looks to everybody -- having the season come down to that guy the last two seasons. I try to stay positive. I figure, 'Hey, the last two seasons I got out.'
"I figure I'm about due. I'd love to be in that situation again. There's going to be those times when you come through and times when you don't come through. The last two, I didn't come through, so I'm due the next two."
Howard, 32, who begins a five-year, $125 million contract extension this season, took live batting practice Wednesday for the first time since his injury.
"I feel good where I am right now," he said, refusing to speculate when he'll be able to play. "We'll see. Ask me in May.
"I was pretty much laid up on the couch for two months after the surgery. The obvious goal is to want to get out there as soon as possible. I'm just listening to my body. It will tell me when I'm ready."
It was only coincidental, Howard said, that he wore a "Wounded Warrior Project" T-shirt for his first full-scale date with the media since the Achilles misadventure.
"I didn't even think about it when I put it on," he said.
Rehabbing the injury is Howard's priority, but second to that is cutting down on strikeouts and drawing more bases on balls.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has repeatedly said he wants Howard to become more selective with his pitches.
"It's OK for him to swing when the count is 3-0, but he should swing at his pitch," said Manuel, pointing out that in 2008 when Howard won the NL MVP Award after batting .313 with 58 homers.
Last season, Howard's average dropped to .253, with 30 homers.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said after the playoff loss to St. Louis, "We have to have a different mindset or approach than maybe we had in 2008 or '09 ... I think we have to rely on better at-bats, being better with two strikes and being better situational hitters."
"Drawing more walks will definitely play a factor [in raising batting average]," Howard said. "You look at guys who hit .300 and look at how many walks they have. It's definitely about being more selective and getting your pitch to hit -- and hitting it."
Future Hall of Famer Jim Thome, who became expendable after Howard arrived in 2005 and was dealt to the White Sox the following season, is back with the Phils.
Howard believes Thome can help him.
"We talked hitting today," said Howard. "When I learned he had been signed, I was very excited. I would say he is probably going to be the guy that would be pitched to the same way they'd pitch me.
"The experience he's had being around the league, facing different pitchers, it's always good to pick somebody's brain like that."
The injury has allowed Howard to sit back and take a long look at his career.
"It really allowed me to step back, take a look at the whole situation, get my mind right, get my body right," he said. "I took a step back to gather myself and figure what's important. I really didn't think about hitting. I just tried to clear my mind of baseball."
Howard said at the Major League level the "game is so fast, you have to slow it down" and that's what he'll try to do.
One thing is certain: The Phillies are favored to win their sixth consecutive NL East title. Without a productive Ryan Howard, that will be difficult.
About the injury, he added: "Now, it's fixed. I'm not going to play reckless, but just kind of fly around the field and have fun doing it."
And not make the final out in the postseason.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.