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10/24/10 3:11 AM ET

Howard's struggles culminate in final out

Slugger caught looking at third strike as Phillies' season ends

PHILADELPHIA -- "That's kind of a tough way to end your season."

So said Ryan Howard, some 40 minutes after the Phillies' 2010 campaign had come to an unceremonious end with his cleats in the batters' box. With two on, two outs and the Phillies trailing by a run, Howard took Brian Wilson's 3-2 slider.

He thought the pitch was low. Home-plate umpire Tom Hallion didn't.

Howard became just the latest high-profile slugger to see pennant hopes end with his bat glued to his shoulder. It had happened to Carlos Beltran four years ago and it had happened to Alex Rodriguez 24 hours ago. Now it had happened to Howard.

A tough end, indeed.

Howard meant the single at-bat, but he could have been referring to the entire postseason. His final confrontation with Wilson, after all, was only the concrete manifestation of the "If, then" statement repeated throughout the final days of this National League Championship Series: If Howard doesn't drive in a run, then the Phillies can't win the series.

With two on and two out in the ninth, the hypothetical had become baseball fact. If Howard didn't drive in this run, then the Phillies wouldn't win the series. And Howard, in his own words, "just came up short."

"I thought the pitch was down. He kind of paused before he made the call. ... For me, it's like, if you're going to call it, call it. Don't hesitate and then make the call," Howard said, adding that he did not look at the play again on replay. "You can't go back. You can't change it. Now it's just elementary."

If he could go back, Howard would likely want to change an awful lot about his postseason. He had spent the 20 or so minutes immediately following the game frozen in his locker room chair, thinking of playing baseball and of winning the game -- two things that had until very recently been eminently possible.

Those dreams ended with Howard's final strikeout of 2010 -- his 30th in his last 56 postseason at-bats. A year after tying the NL record with 17 playoff RBIs, the first baseman ended the 2010 postseason with the same number of RBIs with which he started it: zero.

"It happens," he said. "There's nothing you can do about it. That's the game."

Hurtin' Howard
Most strikeouts in a National League Championship Series
Player Year Team Opp. SO
Ryan Howard 2010 Phi. S.F. 12
John Shelby 1988 L.A. NYM 12
Darryl Strawberry 1986 NYM Hou. 12

Manager Charlie Manuel said on Friday that Howard perhaps was trying too hard with men on base. Howard entered Saturday 1-for-9 with men on base in the playoffs, and 0-for-6 in the NLCS. He changed that in Game 6, collecting a pair of hits with runners on; his poor timing, though, merely transformed into poor luck.

With Jimmy Rollins on first in the fifth inning of a 2-2 game, Howard's line-drive double one-hopped the wall in left-center and caromed right to San Francisco center fielder Andres Torres. Torres' relay throw bounced to cutoff man Edgar Renteria, but Rollins was held at third.

Two batters later, Shane Victorino grounded out to end the threat and keep the game tied.

"Off the bat, I thought I was going to score. When he held me, it surprised me," Rollins said. "Looking back at the time, if he sends me, I'm probably out."

"Once the ball leaves the bat, you can't control what's going to happen," Howard said.

Howard had also singled in the first with Chase Utley on second -- Philadelphia's final hit of the night with a runner in scoring position. The ball was again struck so well to left that Utley had to be held at third.

Manuel suggested after the loss that Howard had never really found his swing following the sprained ankle he suffered in August. The first baseman batted just .231 in his final 38 games of the year.

"I feel like I know that he's a better hitter than what we saw at the end of the year," Manuel said.

Howard himself didn't necessarily agree -- "my swing never left," he said -- and he did have more hits (seven) and more doubles (four) than any other Phillies player in the NLCS. But those are petty things to point to when the series ends with the tying and winning runs on base and the bat on your shoulders.

"That's the spot that everybody dreams of being in. Full count, game on the line," he said. "This time, I came up short."

Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.