10/24/08 8:20 PM EST
Howard confident Phils will halt slump
Amid struggles in clutch spots, Manuel urges hitters to relax
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
Sure, 1-for-28 may be the most referenced statistic hovering over the collective National League champs' heads, but returning to Citizens Bank Park for a workout before Game 3 on Saturday, the Phillies were far more interested in these numbers -- 1-1, as in the series tie they brought home, despite their offensive outages.
Think of it this way: the Phillies have moved this far through the postseason without the complete contributions of the past two NL MVPs, as production from both Howard and Jimmy Rollins has been nearly nonexistent.
The most chafing evidence of the changing attitudes came in Game 1, when Rays manager Joe Maddon elected to intentionally walk Chase Utley to pitch to Howard instead. Left-hander Trever Miller whizzed an 87-mph fastball past the 46-homer, 146-RBI slugger for strike three, continuing a run of success against big lefty bats the Rays enjoyed against Boston's David Ortiz (4-for-26) in the American League Championship Series.
But if Rollins and Howard have been grinding sawdust during their plate appearances, it didn't show much on Friday. Wearing a ski cap and holding his white gloves high, Rollins whipped BP pitches across the outfield. Howard, clad in a hooded sweatshirt, rattled baseballs off the scoreboard in right-center field and flashed what seemed like his first signs of a grin in days.
"I think it's a matter of the guys relaxing, and definitely we've got to cut down on our swing some," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "We're swinging hard. That's a sign of trying too hard and trying to do too much. ... Right now, we take big long swings with two strikes, we're caught up in it, and we're trying to swing and we're trying to hit the ball ... out of the yard. And that's not only one, that's kind of a team thing."
The collective Philadelphia slump continued in Game 2, as one night after setting a World Series record by going 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position, the Phillies went 1-for-15. The Phils' only hit in such a situation was Shane Victorino's infield roller in the fourth inning, which did not lead to a run.
"We're just not getting the guys in," Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson said. "The way we got to the playoffs was timely hitting, and right now, we don't have that timely hitting in those two games. It's a long series. You've got to win four to win it, so I think we're still in good position."
|How the Phillies have fared with runners in scoring position so far in the World Series:|
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By comparison, the Rays capitalized on opportunities in Game 2, making a lot out of a little. Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria both logged RBI groundouts in the first inning and Jason Bartlett executed a fourth-inning safety squeeze, giving Tampa Bay three of its four runs without the benefit of a hit.
"The difference is just executing," Howard said. "Last game, they were able to able to execute. They had runners at second and third in the first inning with less than two outs -- two ground balls, two runs. That's it. It's simplifying the game and not missing."
Howard was initially reluctant to respond to queries during the Phillies' workout, saying he knew what questions he'd receive, and had few answers left to offer.
But the issue has become unavoidable -- hours after working with Thompson on thinking about going the other way more often against the ever-present shift, Howard came through with hits in his first two at-bats of Game 2, but he struck out against David Price to complete the seventh inning and grounded out against Price to end the game.
This, after going 0-for-4 with a walk in Game 1, striking out three times with runners in scoring position. In 40 playoff at-bats, Howard has managed just three RBIs and three extra-base hits, leaving little trace of the power bat who belted 11 home runs in September as the Phillies charged into the playoffs
How far gone is that threat? Put it this way -- the last pitcher to surrender a home run to Howard was wearing a Washington Nationals uniform.
"I'm not worried about home runs," Howard said. "It's not really a big deal. It's just going out there and getting good pitches to hit. When you put a good swing on it, then it goes. I'm not the least bit worried."
Yet Howard has hardly been alone. Rollins has not embraced his usual role as the catalyst of the lineup, going hitless in 10 World Series at-bats so far as his approach wanders into free-swinging territory.
Rollins has gone 3-for-33 since the end of the NL Division Series and had an ultimate moment of frustration when home-plate umpire Kerwin Danley didn't notice a Price fastball brush against his jersey in the ninth inning on Thursday. Instead of getting on base, Rollins was retired on an infield popup as the Phillies lost by two runs.
Still, though the numbers give them every reason in the world to be down, the Phillies would prefer to be up. Even without the offense performing as it should, they have brought the series back to their home park even-up, which Jayson Werth opined gave them an advantage the rest of the way.
"I think it's just a matter of continuing to have good at-bats," Werth said. "We're getting guys on base. We are getting hits, just not getting the hits that count right now. The important thing is that we split down there [at Tropicana Field] and put ourselves in a good situation right now back at home."
And as Eric Bruntlett attested -- and anyone who has watched a game here knows -- Citizens Bank Park has a way of changing offensive doldrums in a hurry. This much can be assured: if the Phillies manage another 29 runners on base in Games 3 and 4, more than five of them will probably be given the opportunity to touch home plate.
"Someone told me what the numbers were yesterday, and that's unheard of," Bruntlett said. "Especially with this team, we're dealing with guys that can really swing the bats. It's not going to continue that way."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.