Ryan Howard back at work after injury

An injured Ryan Howard clutching his leg and writhing in pain on the ground was the lasting image for the Philadelphia Phillies’ disappointing 2011 finish.

The big slugger is doing much better now, and he was all smiles after taking batting practice Wednesday for the first time since surgery to repair his torn left Achilles tendon.

”I feel good where I am right now,” Howard said. ”I don’t know what everybody else’s expectations were for me to be at this point, but I feel good. Not exactly where I want to be yet. There is still a lot of strengthening that needs to take place, change of direction and working on those kinds of things.

”But I feel all right.”

Howard only started swinging a bat less than two weeks ago, and he’s uncertain when he’ll return to his cleanup spot in the Phillies’ lineup.

”I’m not going to put a time limit on it. I’m going to listen to my body and see where we are,” Howard said. ”Obviously, the goal is to want to get out there as soon as possible, but at the same time, with this, I’m just listening to my body and it will let me know when it’s ready. I’ve been talking with the training staff and I’ve been able to do some things, taking some ground balls, doing some hitting, doing baseball-type movements.”

Howard ruptured his Achilles while making the final out in Philadelphia’s 1-0 loss to St. Louis in Game 5 of the NL division series last October. It was an awful way to end a season that began with enormous expectations.

The Phillies set a franchise-record with a major league-leading 102 wins and captured their fifth straight NL East title but again fell short of winning their second World Series championship since 2008.

Howard also made the last out of the season in a 3-2 loss to San Francisco in Game 6 of the 2010 NLCS. He took a called third strike against Brian Wilson with two runners on base.

”I know how it looks to everybody, like having the season come down and you’re the guy. But I try to look at it positive like, the last two seasons I got out, I figure I’m about due,” Howard said. ”I’d love to be in that situation again. There’s going to be those times when you come through, and there’s going to be those times when you don’t come through.”

Howard has delivered in the clutch quite often for the Phillies, though his numbers have gone down in recent years. The 2006 NL MVP batted .253 with a team-high 33 homers and 116 RBI last year. But he was just 2 for 19 (.105) with a homer and six RBI in the NL division series against the Cardinals.

From 2006-09, Howard averaged 50 homers and 141 RBI while hitting .278. He hasn’t matched that production since signing a $125 million, five-year contract extension in April 2010. Howard has averaged 32 homers and 112 RBI with a .265 average over the past two seasons.

Told that manager Charlie Manuel said Howard’s best years are still ahead of him, the 32-year-old first baseman said: ”I would like to think so. Just continuing to learn and to grow as a hitter and a player. Just taking care of my body, stay healthy, I feel like I can go out there and do some damage.”

The Phillies haven’t figured out how they will replace Howard early in the season. They signed veteran Jim Thome, acquired Ty Wigginton and also have John Mayberry Jr.

Thome was traded away to make room for Howard after he was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2005. He’ll likely be used mostly in a pinch-hitting role, but could see some action at first base while Howard is out. Either way, Howard is looking forward to spending time with Thome on the bench and in the clubhouse.

”First and foremost, he’s a great guy, a first-class person,” Howard said. ”And it’s funny because when I heard we signed him back, I was like, man, everything comes around full circle. I was excited for him because he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer and I’m definitely going to be picking his brain as soon as he gets back here.

”He’s a great guy for a clubhouse, great guy for a team.”

Notes: The Phillies promoted Marti Wolever to Assistant General Manager, Amateur Scouting. Wolever had been Philadelphia’s director of scouting since October 2011. Before that role, he served as the club’s national cross-checker and scouting coordinator for nine years. … 3B Placido Polanco arrived in camp Wednesday and said he’s ready to go after having surgery to repair two abdominal tears. Polanco was selected for the All-Star game last year, but struggled down the stretch because of his injury.