Howard looks to rebound from an off year

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.