Howard back this weekend? 'Anything is possible'
"Anything is possible."
That is what Ryan Howard said Monday night when asked if he would be ready to play a major league game this weekend. The Phillies' All-Star first baseman has now played in five consecutive contests as part of his minor league rehabilitation assignment. That number is expected to grow to six on Tuesday, as Howard is scheduled to play five to seven innings at first base for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Triple A).
Look for it to be seven. And it wouldn't be shocking if Howard is at Citizens Bank Park sometime this weekend to rejoin a Phillies lineup that could sorely use his powerful presence. If not this weekend, the first series after the MLB All-Star break appears a foregone conclusion.
On Monday night, Howard went 1 for 4 with an eighth-inning RBI double off former big league reliever Ryota Igarashi. The base hit possessed some classic Howard elements – staying back on the pitch, allowing his hands to direct the ball where it had been thrown.
That at-bat came after a mostly uneventful night for the former National League MVP. Another former MLB pitcher, Ramon Ortiz, did not allow Howard to hit a ball out of the infield in three plate appearances. Ortiz had success throwing fastballs past Howard and then getting him off balance enough that he meekly grounded out twice on off-speed pitches.
Howard suggested Monday that he's comfortable with his timing and pitch recognition at this point. Despite some of his struggles at the plate, that is probably a fair assessment. It's not as if Howard was a .340 contact hitter prior to his injury. The Phillies' star will strike out upon his return to the majors because he has always racked up strikeouts throughout his career.
That's the tradeoff with Howard: inconsistent contact for prodigious power. And that's the question that remains unanswered: How quickly can Howard regain his game-changing, extra-base producing stroke?
Although they have dealt with different injuries, Chase Utley's home run decline last year was, in some part, related to a lack of lower-body strength. Howard figures to deal with that same issue as he attempts to play nine months after rupturing his Achilles tendon. This is not to suggest that Howard will not be a legitimate long-ball threat upon his return. It does mean the Phillies can't depend on Howard to wave his magic wand and make 20 home runs magically appear.
Power aside, Howard's impending return will create some interesting lineup decisions for Charlie Manuel. Logic may suggest that Utley, Howard, and All-Star Carlos Ruiz form the heart of the Phillies' batting order. But hitting Howard and Ruiz back-to-back guarantees station-to-station baseball, as "The Big Piece" is more ambling than running on the basepaths these days.
Could Howard be the spark the Phillies need to right the ship and make a second half playoff surge? Anything is possible.
It's just unfair and unrealistic to expect it.E-mail Casey Feeney at email@example.com