09/30/08 9:10 PM ET
Who's on first? Two heavy hitters
Fielder's late surge mirrors Howard's September prowess
By Anthony DiComo / MLB.com
"They're real good guys," said Phillies outfielder Geoff Jenkins, who played with each slugger over the past two years. "And obviously, the power speaks for itself."
So consider the power. Fielder, guiding his Brewers back into playoff contention during the waning days of September, hit .316 with six home runs in the season's final month. Though left fielder Ryan Braun might garner more attention, Fielder has been equally important, giving the Brewers the left-handed pop that they otherwise might lack.
Then there's Howard, whose video-game statistics make even Fielder's seem trite. Batting .352 with 11 homers in September, Howard came up with big hit after bigger hit, coming through early and late to launch the Phillies to the NL East crown.
"There are guys that kind of carry the team at times," Jenkins said, trying to explain. "You can't say enough about what Howard did in September. He was lights-out."
Howard, rushing into the home clubhouse on Tuesday after a fresh haircut, grinned when he thought back on his month.
"September was fun," Howard said. "But September's done, and we're going into October and trying to make it deep into the playoffs."
That plan, when considered alone, seems simple enough. The Phillies are a hot team, perhaps the hottest team, and Howard is the primary reason why. Consider, for example, the home run that Howard hit two weeks ago in Atlanta, giving the Phillies a lead and boosting them into first place for the first time since August. Or the one he hit last weekend against the Nationals, helping his team all but wrap up the division crown.
Howard hit 48 of them in all during the regular season, up one from last year, and he now has 153 home runs over the past three seasons. And though he was batting in the .220s as late as the final week of August, Howard managed to push his final season average up to .251.
"He's good," Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino said. "Obviously, it showed, and he made a push for MVP. I don't know what he hit this month, and I really don't care to know. That was September. We're in October now. I hope he can keep it going. I know he will. I have confidence in him."
Tale of the Tape
Those words echoed in the Brewers' clubhouse earlier on Tuesday afternoon, a half-stadium away, where they, too, were discussing the upcoming series. Only the Brewers weren't talking about Howard. They were talking about Fielder, who -- though not as statistically staggering -- managed to carry his club for much of September.
Fielder's greatest -- or at least loudest -- contribution came in Milwaukee last week, when he hit a walk-off home run in the ninth inning to beat the Pirates, keeping the Brewers just a game behind the NL Wild Card-leading Mets. And that was part of a nearly three-week stretch that saw Fielder hit .409 with all six of his September home runs, anchoring the lineup and giving the team's pitching staff room to excel.
"Every team needs to get somebody hot in September, and Prince was that bat for us during the one stretch," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "Just like Ryan Howard for Philadelphia."
The similarities can indeed be striking -- so much so that even Fielder took notice. Upset last offseason because the Brewers renewed his contract rather than agreeing to what he considered a suitable raise, Fielder drew plenty of comparisons to Howard, who earned $10 million in his first trip through the arbitration process.
Fielder will be eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, and he certainly will use Howard's contract as a guide. Both might also be inclined to sign long-term deals with their clubs, with potential free agency still rather far in the future. Yet on Tuesday, before the Brewers began their scheduled workout at Citizens Bank Park, even Fielder would not take an interest in Howard.
"Why would I do that?" Fielder asked. "I saw he was doing well. But I wasn't paying attention."
Most of the rest of baseball was -- and perhaps even Fielder will be this week, staring out at the confines of Citizens Bank Park. Both the Brewers and Phillies have shown a certain dependence upon the long ball, and both Fielder and Howard can provide it.
Combine that with the fact that this stadium, the site of Games 1 and 2, has garnered a reputation as one of baseball's foremost launching pads, and perhaps no two players will have greater impacts than the two first basemen. Whichever one of them gets hot -- or, rather, remains hot -- could easily be the series MVP.
"He's definitely a guy that can change some things," Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks said of Fielder, though he easily could have been talking about Howard.
"He's a guy that you can count on and you need to count on in a situation like this," Victorino said of Howard, though he easily could have been talking about Fielder.
"They're just very even-keeled-demeanor-type guys," Jenkins said, finally drawing something of a compromise. "Prince is a pretty fiery guy at times, but I think that the way they carry themselves off the field is very similar."
The way they carry themselves on the field is even more similar. They're both crucial to their lineups and downright irreplaceable to their teams. And so it's a good bet that at some point this week, either Howard or Fielder -- or both -- will play a determining role in the NLDS.
"This is definitely a hitters' park, and we've got to keep that in mind," Brewers outfielder Corey Hart said. "No lead here is too safe."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.