10/01/07 5:05 PM ET
Howard would trade MVP award for ring
Slugger ready to prove himself during October baseball
By Andy Jasner / Special to MLB.com
"In a second," he stated loudly in the excitement of the Phillies clubhouse after their 6-1 victory over the Nationals on Sunday clinched the National League East title.
The slugging first baseman had a season to remember in 2006 when he slammed 58 homers, knocked in 149 runs and hit .313 en route to the MVP. If you look at his numbers in '07 -- 47 home runs, 136 RBIs, .268 average -- they're very respectable indeed.
You have to understand how difficult the season was for Howard. That's why advancing to the playoffs for the first time since 1993 may mean more to him than many others on the team.
It all started in Spring Training when the Phillies finally signed him to a one-year, $900,000 contract, the largest amount ever paid to a player with less than two years of service time. Howard still isn't eligible to become a free agent until after the 2011 season.
Then came the strained left quadriceps, which hampered him a little in Clearwater, Fla., and continued through May. Howard also struggled mightily at the plate, hitting barely above .200 at one point when he wasn't completely healthy.
Yes he wound up setting a Major League record with 199 strikeouts, but he also came up with many clutch hits over the final 16 games as the Phillies finished 13-3 to overtake the Mets.
Howard hit a solo shot off Nationals reliever Mike Bacsik in the seventh inning on Sunday which extended a streak of at least one homer in the Phillies' final four games. It matched his career-high from Aug. 25-29, 2006.
"My swing feels good," Howard said. "I started to get more comfortable at the plate after the All-Star break and it carried over. I never let a tough at-bat bother me. I kept working and found my stroke. Being healthy was important. Knowing the guys here were hitting so well around me helped a lot. Guys like [Chase] Utley and [Pat] Burrell and [Aaron] Rowand, carried us at times. When I was hitting line drives out of the park, I knew my swing was getting back on track. I just felt good up there."
Utley pointed to Howard and drenched him with a bottle of champagne.
"See this guy, Howard?," Utley said. "The big man is unbelievable. He has a presence at the plate. Even with teams shifting for him, he hits it so hard, it still gets by them."
Through the strikeouts, manager Charlie Manuel never wavered in his confidence in Howard.
"I don't have to worry about Ryan," Manuel said. "I would talk to him and tell him to keep his head up when he had some tough at-bats. He never let it carry over into another ballgame. As you saw, he got some good swings up there and got some big home runs for us. He hit one [Sunday] and the few games before that. I think with all the guys healthy in front of him and behind him, it helped him do good. He's been putting a lot of good swings together lately."
Howard is healthy, swinging the bat well and prepared to take his first step into uncharted territory -- October baseball.
"It's so exciting to be there," Howard said. "We won the division. We're going to enjoy this and then come back to work. We have bigger goals now. Let's go one at a time. It's going to be so much fun chasing down a World Series ring."
Andy Jasner is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.