10/27/09 2:00 AM EST
Howard's pop powers playoff mystique
Phillies slugger turns game up a notch in postseason
By Todd Zolecki / MLB.com
Sometimes it just happens.
But the questions still come for Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard every fall. Why? Why do you hit so well late in the season? Is it because the games mean more? Is it because you are more focused? Is it because you see the ball better at the plate?
Maybe it is none of those things. Maybe it is all of those things.
"I'm just trying to have good [at-bats]" is his stock answer.
But there is no questioning this: Howard, arguably the game's best pure power hitter, turns into an irresistible force late in the season. Since he became an everyday player in 2005, Howard's 1.127 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in regular-season games in September and October is the best in baseball.
He has 24 RBIs in the postseason the past three years. Only Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez has more, with 30.
Fourteen of Howard's 24 postseason RBIs have come this year, which will make him a marked man beginning Wednesday night at 7:57 p.m. in Game 1 of the World Series against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
"It's been a good feeling," Howard said. "Just being up there and being relaxed and not trying to do too much, just trying to get good pitches and hit them -- basically, just trying to keep everything simple. Yeah, the playoffs are a whole different game. I mean, you're one of eight teams that are left, and you're going for the gold. It's a completely different animal from the regular season, and you just know that in order to get where you want to be, you're got to step your game up and you've got to be on your 'A' game and just go out there and get things done."
Howard has been getting things done for years. He replaced Jim Thome as the team's everyday first baseman July 2, 2005, and hit .288 with 22 home runs and 63 RBIs in 88 games to win the National League's Rookie of the Year Award. He won the league's Most Valuable Player Award in 2006, when he hit .313 with 58 home runs and 149 RBIs. He hit .268 with 47 homers and 136 RBIs in '07, .251 with 48 homers and 146 RBIs in '08 and .279 with 45 homers and 141 RBIs in '09.
He has hit 219 home runs since he replaced Thome in July 2005 to lead the Majors.
Next best? Albert Pujols, who has 185.
Howard has 634 RBIs in that same span to lead the Majors.
Next best? Alex Rodriguez, who has 544.
Howard's .588 slugging percentage is second in baseball behind Pujols' .634. Howard is the fastest player in baseball history to hit 200 home runs and the fastest to reach 600 RBIs since Ted Williams in 1946.
Howard has four consecutive seasons with 40 home runs and 130 RBIs. Only Babe Ruth (seven years, 1926-32), Ken Griffey Jr. (four years, 1996-99) and Sammy Sosa (four years, 1998-2001) have accomplished the feat. Howard and Sosa hold the National League record with four consecutive 130-RBI seasons.
"That's cool," Howard said. "That's good company to be a part of. That's doing something. It's a pleasure to be a part of that."
"That's why I call him the Big Piece," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.
Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth has hit behind Howard in every playoff game this year, sometimes to his benefit. Dodgers right-hander Vicente Padilla walked both Chase Utley and Howard in the first inning in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series, and Werth followed with a three-run home run to give the Phillies a 3-1 lead.
"Hitting is contagious for sure," Werth said. "One of the things about Ryan, you get to stand on deck while he's hitting. You get a pretty good seat, and especially when he hits balls really far. The ball doesn't come off the bat really like it comes off his. I find myself just kind of watching more as a fan sometimes, standing on deck getting ready to hit. But it's exciting to hit behind him for sure."
It definitely has been exciting. Howard hit .333 (5-for-15) with one double, one triple, two home runs, eight RBIs and six walks in the NLCS to win series MVP honors. He is one of only three players in baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year, regular-season MVP and LCS MVP award: Pujols and Fred Lynn are the others.
Which brings us back to the beginning:
How does he do it?
"I would probably have to say it's a little bit of everything," Howard said. "When you're hitting in this lineup, you've got guys like Chase, Jayson Werth, Raul [Ibanez], Shane [Victorino], Jimmy [Rollins] ... when you've got guys like that in this lineup, it makes things a lot easier, and for me just going up there right now, just trying to be as disciplined as I can and just be as relaxed as I can and just trying to work good ABs and get good pitches to hit."
Just trying to have good ABs. It sounds so simple for Howard, but every September and October people continue to be amazed as he does it again.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.