CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — Ryan Howard never saw a replay of the final pitch he took that ended the Philadelphia Phillies’ quest for a third straight NL pennant.
The memory lingered without any need for visual aid.
“It took me a little while to let it go. I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” Howard said Friday. “But I finally got over it once everything was over and the season was over. It stuck with me a little bit, but I tried to focus on this year.”
The Phillies were trailing the San Francisco Giants 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth in Game 6 of the NL championship series. Closer Brian Wilson had walked two in the inning, putting runners on first and second when Howard came to the plate with two outs.
Howard worked a full count before he looked at a 90 mph slider at the knees. Plate umpire Tom Hallion called him out to finish off the Phillies.
Does Howard still think the pitch was low?
“Doesn’t matter,” Howard said. “I didn’t watch it. I don’t really care to see it because you can’t go back and change it. I’m focused on this year.”
Howard is coming off a down season for him. He hit .276 with 31 homers and 108 RBIs. Those are terrific numbers for many others, but Howard averaged 50 homers and 143 RBIs from 2006-09.
“It’s funny to me because everybody talks about my power numbers from last year and how, ‘Oh, Ryan. Your power numbers were down”‘ Howard said. “I think everybody forgot I was out for a month, that I was hurt and down for a month because I was right there on the leader board for home runs and RBIs. As far as that stuff, I don’t think it was an issue. I got hurt.”
Howard missed three weeks with an ankle injury in August. He was on pace for 36 homers and 126 RBIs — still below his career averages — before he got hurt.
Howard entered last season averaging a homer every 12.1 at-bats. Last year, he went deep once every 17.7. That was his average before the injury and also for the entire season.
“I think last year I hit the most balls I’ve ever hit that knuckled for some reason,” Howard said. “I just wasn’t getting the backspin for some reason. I would square balls up and they would just knuckle. You go up there and once you hit the ball, you can’t control what happens.”
Howard did cut down on his strikeouts. He fanned 157 times, averaging one whiff per 3.5 at-bats. Coming into the season, he struck out once every 3.06.
“Obviously you don’t go up there trying to strike out,” Howard said. “I didn’t really change my approach too much. It was a matter of going up there and being a little more patient. That was it.”
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel would gladly take more strikeouts if it meant more homers and RBIs.
“I don’t even like to look at it that way,” Manuel said. “I like for the guy to go up and your focus should be on getting a good ball to drive, a ball that you like. If his strikeouts are up and he has 150 RBIs and 45-50 home runs, hell, go ahead and strike out 300 times then. How many guys in the game knock in 150 runs? You can count them on this one hand. As a matter of fact, you can eliminate a couple of fingers.”
Howard is working on standing closer to the plate, something he’s tried in the past but quickly abandoned. Manuel wants him to stick with it this time.
“It helps him cover the plate and helps him be able to get to the ball on the outside part of the plate freely. It puts him closer to the plate on the ball middle in,” Manuel said. “If he stays where he’s at right now, and I’d like to think if things started going his way and he got real hot, he would never go back and get back off the plate again.
“Last year when Barry Bonds worked with him, I didn’t mind that at all because I know how Barry Bonds hit. I thought to myself, the first thing he’s going to do is move Howard a little closer to the plate. We just wanted him to get close enough where he doesn’t lose his balance when the ball’s out away from him.”
Howard has always had tremendous power to the opposite field. But Manuel says that’s also a product of his stance and how far he is off the plate. If Howard stands closer, he’ll pull more balls.
“A lot of those balls he’s hitting to left field are kind of down the middle and inside,” Manuel said. “The ball’s getting deep on him and he’s swinging late and he just happens to be strong enough to hit the ball out that way. But now his good hitting is to the right of center field to right field. And he won’t have to really put a real hard 420-foot swing on the ball. I know people rave about him hitting the ball to left field and hitting home runs, but his strong field still is from just to the right of center field to the right-field line.”
Howard is willing to give it a try.
“We’re negotiating. Me and Charlie, we’re talking,” he joked.
“Right now it’s all about getting the feel right. I’ve been hitting closer to the plate the entire offseason so just kind of getting a feel for it.”
Howard was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2005 when he had 22 homers and 63 RBIs in just 88 games. He followed that with one of the best sophomore seasons in history. Howard had 58 homers, 149 RBIs and a .313 average to win the NL MVP award.
Last April, the Phillies gave Howard a deal adding $125 million over five years through 2016 with an additional club option. Otherwise, he would’ve entered this season in the final year of a contract, like Albert Pujols in Howard’s hometown, St. Louis.
“Yeah, it’s definitely cool to have it done,” Howard said.
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