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02/09/07 10:00 AM ET

Will anyone hit 60 home runs?

After narrowly missing the mark, Howard is the best bet

If any player is going to deliver the first 60-homer season since 2001, that player will be Ryan Howard.

Of this, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has no doubt. Obvious bias aside, Manuel has been watching Howard bash baseballs since 2003, when Howard toiled in Class A Clearwater and Manuel was a special advisor to then-general manager Ed Wade.

Even then, Manuel saw an amazing ability to send them a long way in every direction, and that hasn't changed.

"He's very strong and he covers the plate very well," Manuel said. "I don't see why he can't do it. If he stays patient and waits for his pitch, he'll be fine. If he just hits .300, he's going to hit a lot of home runs."

The National League Most Valuable Player isn't the only one with the qualifications. Perennial sluggers David Ortiz (Boston) and Albert Pujols (St. Louis) -- and Alfonso Soraino (Cubs) in Wrigley Field isn't a bad dark-horse candidate -- have similar strength and talent. But Howard is the most popular choice because he's come the closest.

When his total reached 49 by the end of August last season, shattering Mike Schmidt's franchise mark of 48 along the way, his "60-homer club" membership card was being printed. After all, the lefty slugger pounded 11 homers the previous September, so joining Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as the only men in that distinguished club seemed a foregone conclusion.

With the accomplishments of the final three tainted by perceived performance-enhancing drugs, Howard was being hailed for doing it the "natural way." He roared past 50 with a three-homer performance on Sept. 3 and reached 56 with two more on Sept. 8.

With 21 games left, how could he not get there?

Obviously, he didn't, and the most important reason was that opponents wouldn't give him the chance. Pitchers either issued intentional walks, or gave him nothing to hit. The struggles of No. 5 hitter Pat Burrell, and later Jeff Conine, made this decision easy.

This led to Howard being admittedly pressed and hitting just two more over his final 21 games, to finish with 58. His incredible season earned him a MVP Award, but the 60-membership dinner had to wait.

"If I get there, I get there," Howard said. "I'm not going to worry about that stuff. Obviously, I'd like a chance [to hit in crucial] spots, but if they won't pitch to me, someone else can get the job done."

Hitting 60 home runs is arguably the most difficult of the individual accomplishments, considering only five players have done it, and those five combined to do it eight times.

In addition to opponents' lack reluctance to face Howard, Pujols and Ortiz, another factor will be their home addresses, and hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park certainly won't hurt Howard's chances, nor will Boston's right-field area for lefty Ortiz.

Manuel predicts a solid performance from Burrell and others around Howard, giving opponents less reason to take the bat out of Howard's hands. The Phillies scored the fourth-most runs in the Major Leagues in 2006 and added Wes Helms. The Red Sox were ninth and St. Louis was 14th.

While Pujols and Ortiz have had more consistent success simply because they've been around longer, Pujols has never reached 50, and Ortiz's 54 in 2006 were a career high.

Howard knows he has a long way to go just to duplicate his 2006 record, let alone improve on it. He won't be sneaking up on anybody.

Still, Manuel cited adjustments made by Howard as an example of his rapid growth. He eliminated the "middle in" part of the plate in 2006, taking away a location for pitchers to try and find.

"That was supposed to be his hole," Manuel said. "They don't bust him now because he can handle that. He wants to master his hitting and he's getting there."

But can he or others find their way to 60?

"I'm sometimes surprised I got to 58," Howard said. "It was surprising to step back and see what I did. "I'm still awestruck."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.